In the early 1870s, Winslow Homer gained great acclaim for his depictions of rural American life, among them is a closely related series of works depicting country schools. An informal series of paintings, drawings and engravings focused on traditional single room schoolhouses, including The Country School (The St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri), showing a schoolmistress teaching a class, School Time (Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia) and two versions of Snap the Whip (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio), which depict the exterior of the same schoolhouse with children engaged in outdoor activities. These paintings share a late nineteenth century nostalgia for the rapidly vanishing world of the one-room schoolhouse. Gordon Hendricks believed that all four pictures depicted a schoolroom in Hurley, New York, where Homer spent the summer of 1872. Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., however, has suggested that Homer may have assembled the images from sketches of various elements made during previous summers in the Catskills or even from sketches done in his New York studio.
When Homer exhibited The Country School in the 1872 Academy annual exhibition, he received great reviews from critics. The New York Evening Press considered the work "thoroughly national." (M. Conrads, Winslow Homer and the Critics--Forging a National Art in the 1870s, Princeton, 2001, p. 40) Margaret Conrads also writes, "The image of a one-room school, an icon of America's unique system of education, automatically identified The Country School as specifically American. With such a strong national association, the subject could be construed more broadly as symbolic of the American democratic system." (Winslow Homer and the Critics--Forging a National Art in the 1870s, p. 40)
Homer's schoolhouse paintings also expressed enthusiasm for the new post-war educational methods and philosophies, represented by the emerging status of women in post-war society and their participation as teachers in the educational system. As noted by The Ohio Educational Monthly in 1872, "The capture of the common school" by women instructors was "one of the most vital social changes wrought by our great civil war, [as] large numbers of our schoolmasters went off to war and never came home." The old stereotype of the brutal schoolmaster, educating by the whip rather than the book, was replaced by the image of a professional woman, whose normal school training and natural "softening influence" were appropriate to a new concept of education as the guidance of an innately good child, rather than the stern discipline of a wicked one. Each painting in the series is emblematic of a different aspect of modern pedagogy and The Noon Recess (The Warner Collection of Gulf States Paper, Tuscaloosa, Alabama) exemplifies [an] enlightened, kindly tolerant discipline, which is as much punishment for the teacher as for the pupil; and Snap the Whip, with its free expression and explosively liberated natural energy that is a perfect emblem of everything modern pedagogy aspired to accomplish--and the essential conception of childhood upon which it was founded." (N. Cikovsky, Jr., 'Modern and National' in N. Cikovsky and F. Kelly, Winslow Homer, Washington, D.C., 1995, p. 88)
Winslow Homer's Young Man Reading typifies the phenomena of the 1870s: nostalgia for a passing era and evolution in education. The young man calls to mind Homer's newly utilized type of a solitary figure who appears alone, still and contemplative. The composition also exemplifies Homer's "new mastery in placing figures effectively in relation to the surrounding elements of architectural or constructed forms...He also began to think about age and aging, how youth seems timeless yet impossible to hold. Like the writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner and his fellow painters Eastman Johnson and J.G. Brown he placed boys, comic and serious at once, center stage." (J. Wilmerding, et al, Winslow Homer in the 1870s--Selections from the Valentine-Pulsifer Collection, Princeton, 1990, pp. 14-16) It has been noted that the model used for the present work may be the same one used in Homer's 1874 masterwork A Temperance Meeting [Noon Time], significant because that work stands as another example of the artist's desire to bring changing societal norms to the forefront (in that case, cannily, the temperance movement). The scene in Young Man Reading is also reminiscent of the one depicted in Homer's Country School (Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy) where a young boy is engrossed in reading a book, with legs crossed on a wooden bench, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. The same sense of concentration occupies the figure in Young Man Reading. However, the open window which sheds light upon his book recalls Homer's other image from the series, The Noon Recess. This painting depicts the same young boy from Country School reading, but out the window the playful group of boys from Snap the Whip can be seen.
Homer's single figure in Young Man Reading extends the artist's themes of youth at play replacing them with an older, more mature young man who is comfortable, both physically and psychologically, in his solitary setting. This maturity is reflected in his concentration upon the reading at hand, as well as his physical presence, comfortably leaning into his work. Wilmerding states, "What Homer revealed, for himself and for us, at the center of his creative enterprise, were the constructs by which man faces himself and the world about him." (Winslow Homer in the 1870s--Selections from the Valentine-Pulsifer Collection, p. 16) Young Man Reading appears to be not only a nostalgic recollection of past times, but also a positive nod towards the future and maturity of our young nation within the social and cultural changes brought about by the Civil War.
The work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.