Winslow Homer's sojourn to France from 1866 to 1867 instilled in his work the essentials of composition and technique, and endowed him with subject matter that translated into his oeuvre for the remainder of his career. Henry Adams writes, "...one must distinguish between two intertwined currents in Homer's work of the 1860s, a Barbizon and an impressionist tendency ... the major influence in this period was the work of the French Barbizon painters to whom he was introduced through William Morris Hunt's circle in Boston and through his 1867 trip to France. The paintings Homer made in France are particularly closely modeled on those of the Barbizon masters. The influence of the Barbizon painters was of enduring value, for through their example Homer learned to eschew details and concentrate on fundamentals. Moreover, in their work he first discovered the subject of man against nature that would occupy him for the final half of his career, a theme he eventually transposed from the French farmyard to the open sea and the American wilderness." ("Winslow Homer's 'Impressionism' and its Relation to His Trip to France," Winslow Homer: A Symposium, Washington, D.C., 1990, p. 80-1)
Homer executed nineteen paintings while in France including The Return of the Gleaner. The painting shows a direct influence of the Barbizon school upon the artist's technique and subject matter. He adopted agricultural subject matter of workers in fields, and executed them with bold brushstrokes and simplified compositions, pared down to essential elements of color and detail. ("Winslow Homer's 'Impressionism' and its Relation to His Trip to France," p. 68) These characteristics were not new to Homer, though, as he had already established himself at home as a "legitimate painter" with the success and sale of his Civil War paintings. Two such noteworthy paintings were The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon) of 1863 and The Veteran in a New Field (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) of 1865. In both works, Homer reduced his subject matter and essential compositional elements to a minimum. Nicolai Cikovsky writes, "Homer's image of the sharpshooter is all the more forceful and meaningful because of the extraordinary visual and symbolic compactness of its form that makes the subject not an incident or episode of the war, but an emblem of what is essential in and special to it." ("The School of War," Winslow Homer, Washington, D.C., 1995, pp. 21-2)
Homer's grasp of subject matter and technique, and the ability to instill truth and perceptiveness into his figures, is enhanced in his 1865 painting The Veteran in a New Field (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). A recent war veteran is shown reaping the harvest in a lush wheat field. The Veteran in a New Field is Homer's embarkation upon agricultural subject matter and the theme of man in nature. Only two years later, he executed the same theme in The Return of the Gleaner. The composition, color, and brushwork is simultaneously minimalist, bold, and painterly. Homer removed previously extant details prior to its exhibition, such as tree branches at upper right and a cradled scythe was replaced with a single one. This effort strengthens the composition formally and instills a greater meaning through "...symbolic distillation. The image of the harvesting veteran could express something very much greater if he did not insist on that fact of agricultural technology: by the single-bladed scythe he made the veteran into a symbol of Death the reaper." ("The School of War," p. 25)
By the time Homer arrived in France in early December 1866 and executed The Return of the Gleaner in 1867, his abilities in composition, color, form and symbolism were well-entrenched in his oeuvre. Homer's adherence to this subject matter and style is indicative of the influence of this trip, and the artist's unwavering belief in his own artistic style, as during the 1860s a raging battle occurred in the New York art world between two schools of thought. The first was the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, whose members aligned themselves with the thoughts of John Ruskin and the English Pre-Raphaelites, believing in truth to nature through meticulous imitation. The opposite camp aligned themselves with modern French art, namely the Barbizon school, with a broader, painterly style, often criticized for being "unfinished", with truthful depictions of nature. Of overall importance, though, was what each camp's style was intending to express in their works.
Homer had several close affiliations with members of this movement, namely Eugene Benson in New York and William Morris Hunt in Boston, both who aligned themselves with the French Barbizon style. Benson was also an art critic for the New York Evening Post, and a prolific writer of his opinions on art. It is believed Homer sided with Benson's views and his admiration for the work of French artist, Jean-Francois Millet. Millet's influence resulted in Homer's adoption of parallel subject matter and compositional technique: single figure depictions, minimal details, and large compositional stretches of open space, sky and land, stressing the relationship between man and nature.
The same influence is evident in The Return of the Gleaner. A French peasant woman, an inhabitant of Cernay-la-Ville in Picardy, stands stoically in a sun-drenched wheat field. A scythed field with glints of budding red flowers abuts against a band of golden wheat, the tops of which share the same parallel as the gleaner's waist and the horizon line. Her body is beautifully silhouetted against a cloudy sky of blue, gray and white hues. The image symbolizes Homer's capitalization upon bold stylistic techniques and themes, influenced by the Barbizon school and Impressionism. Details are reduced to a minimum, further enforcing the directness and honesty of his subject matter.
The Return of the Gleaner is a continuation of Homer's early technical virtuosity and ability to depict strong, direct imagery. The influence of the Barbizon school is seen in his palette, composition, and theme of man in nature, all a continuum of Homer's pre-France abilities. His sojourn there further solidified these talents and assured his position as one of America's leading painters throughout his career.
This work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.