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Right and Left by Winslow Homer

At first, you might not be sure what you see when looking at this late Winslow Homer painting. Two ducks flying off kilter. The sky, and sea behind them merge into a palette of grays. Then you see the tiny flash of orange. It is all but hidden in a cloud of pale smoke that echoes the colors of the ducks’ breasts. The hunter comes into focus, then his brown boat. Has Homer painted an essay on life and death. Is this a Rorschach Test for how viewers see their world, the future. Does the hunter win…or the hunted? Today we will look at Winslow Homer, what makes his paintings unique, and then hopefully gain some perspective on “Right and Left.”

A Quintessential American Artist

Winslow Homer, 1880; photo by Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896)
Winslow Homer, 1880; photo by Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896)

Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836. His mother was a watercolorist. He apprenticed in lithography, before moving to New York City. There he began making engravings for Harper’s Weekly. He eventually became a combat artist for Harper’s during the Civil War, and was embedded with the Union Army. It was his Civil War oil paintings that really got Homer noticed. After the war, Homer spent some time in France, but continued to paint in his own style. in 1883 Homer moved to Prouts Neck, Maine. The town is on the Main seacoast. The landscape, and water would have a profound impact on Homer’s work. He would stay there until his death in 1910. Homer traveled often, but he always returned to Maine, and his studio.

Unique qualities of his paintings

Home Sweet Home by Winslow Homer c. 1863

When it came to painting Homer was both a realist, and a naturalist. One of Homer’s strengths was how he captured the zeitgeist of America at the time. He painted the day to day life of average people. His subjects went to school, they hunted, they tilled the fields, and worked on the water. Homer chose to make his works universal. Take “Home, Sweet Home,” a Civil War piece found at the National Gallery of Art. Homer painted two soldiers listening to a band that is playing the song referenced in the title. Homer could easily have picked a song that was specific to the Union. He chose to title the piece with one of the rare tunes that was important to soldiers from both the North and South. Today, when viewing the painting, we can still relate to being homesick, even if we are not at war.

A Unique View of the Ducks

Let’s look again at “Right and Left.” Homer painted it in 1909. He’s already had a long and successful career that spanned five decades. He was 73 years old, and recovering from a stroke that he’d suffered the year before. Maybe knowing this frames your interpretation of the painting, or maybe it does not.

Right and Left by Winslow Homer c. 1909

Homer chose to place two common goldeneye ducks at the forefront of the canvas. The viewer is at a unique vantage point. Our eye level floats even with the ducks just above the waves. We see their pristine bellies, and a single white feather floating at the side. Their bodies hide any possible damage done by a bullet. Are the ducks flying erratically because they have been hit, or are they taking evasive maneuvers in flight? If you search on-line you can easily find what scholars think they see. They are certain of their answers. Not everyone agrees. That is the brilliance of the painting.

Invitation for Interpretation

“Right and Left” is a wonderful reminder that all art is open to interpretation. There is one final thing. When you stop asking questions about the ducks, you realize that you are also looking down the barrel of the hunter’s shotgun. It is hidden, and far enough away that those who glance casually at the painting usually miss it all together. Whether we see it or not, the gun is still there, pointed at every viewer who walks past, or stops to look, and once, back in 1909, it was pointed at Winslow Homer as he painted the scene. While all art is open to interpretation, great art should make us stop, and think.

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