Beginning with his celebrated works of the 1860s, Winslow Homer's art achieved a high degree of early acclaim, particularly for his images of the Civil War and his depictions of rural American life. In the 1870s, Homer's work turned almost exclusively to farm and seaside subjects, often including children, of which The Last Days of Harvest is an exemplary masterwork. This painting, painted in 1874, follows other notable compositions of related subjects which hint at an underlying nostalgia for a pre-industrial American past, and celebrate the virtues of country life--among them, for example, Crossing the Pasture (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth) and Snap the Whip (The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio), both of 1872. Taken collectively, these works represent a new direction for the artist.
In his portrayal of American subjects, Homer reached his widest audience through his wood-block prints, which appeared in the popular magazine, Harper's Weekly. In the 1870s, however, he undertook a new emphasis on easel painting. As noted by Margaret Conrads, "after taking two years to reestablish himself in New York, Homer began 1870 committed to pursuing a career as a painter. Over the next four years, he experimented with subject matter and artistic treatment with a vigor previously unknown in his work. Although he was painting in what appeared to be a steady stream, he developed patterns of working and exhibiting that made his canvases available to the public in waves. Homer's working mode included the creation of groups of related works, in which he investigated specific artistic problems. The more investigative excursions appeared in tandem with paintings where his solutions to the problems were capitalized on and often synthesized." (Winslow Homer and the Critics, Princeton, New Jersey, 2001, p. 25)
Consistent with Homer's use of compositional ideas in several works of varied media, the young boy and central figure of The Last Days of Harvest first appears in a woodblock print in the December 6, 1873 issue of Harpers Weekly. In the print, Homer places the same boy in a prominent position in the foreground at lower right. In the opposite corner, Homer has placed a second boy, also seated and shucking corn, and in the background two additional figures loading pumpkins into a horse-drawn wagon. The present oil painting, painted in 1874, a year after the print, also introduces a compositional change. Here Homer presents the boy as a solitary figure--creating a work of quite different tone and mood, and presenting in oil the kind of composition Homer's contemporary critics referred to as "thoroughly national" in its subject matter. (Winslow Homer and the Critics, p. 40)
Harvest scenes in American nineteenth-century paintings commonly presented as their theme the abundance of the harvest, and, by extension, the fertility of the land. In his wood-block print The Last Days of Harvest, Homer continues this tradition with his inclusion of the boys surrounded by freshly shucked corn, and the wagon loaded with pumpkins. He maintains this theme in the oil, which, even with its much simplified (and more powerful) composition, still includes numerous ears of corn, and pumpkins resting on the ground. The light is subdued, suggesting twilight and the approach of evening after a day of productive labor in the fields.
Homer's use and re-use of successful compositional ideas was common in his work of the 1870s. For example, about the same time Homer paints on a boat a solitary boy looking out to sea in his famous watercolor composition Waiting for Dad (Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, California) of 1873. That same year he incorporates the same boy in a larger oil entitled Dad's Coming (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia), in which the boy looking out to sea is accompanied in the composition by a mother and second child.
During the early 1870s with these works, in their boldness and directness of style, Homer strove to push the boundaries of American Art. "The art Homer produced during the 1870s varied widely in media, subject, and style," writes Conrads. "The themes he explored in his oils, watercolors, and drawings - women, children, African-American life, farming, and wilderness - were all drawn from current events and topics of contemporary concern. As Homer's scenes connected directly to these contemporary interests, his stylistic treatment and technique alternated between or combined experimental and standard practice. Homer's art thus challenged the art press, and elicited greater or lesser degrees of critical understanding and acceptance. Responses to his work ran both very hot and very cold, sometimes simultaneously from the same critic." (Winslow Homer and the Critics, pp. 3, 25)
Homer's great contribution of the 1870's was to create a new approach to subjects of an almost entirely indigenous nature. In these years, he also began to fulfill his promise as one of the foremost American painters of the day and also to create a series of paintings touching upon the American scene--including some of the most famous masterworks of his career. As summarized by Conrads, "his use of light, color, paint application, and compositional design vied for attention with his unmistakably homegrown subjects, and by the middle of the decade, Homer received great acclaim." (Winslow Homer and the Critics, pp. 5-6)
This work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.