Moonlight on the Water

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Moonlight on the Water

United States, early 1890s; restretched in new format circa 1906
Paintings
Oil on canvas
15 11/16 x 31 7/16 in. (39.85 x 79.8 cm)
Paul Rodman Mabury Collection (39.12.10)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

While living in Cullercoats in 1881-82, Homer reinterpreted the popular image of women anxiously searching the stormy North Sea for their loved ones....
While living in Cullercoats in 1881-82, Homer reinterpreted the popular image of women anxiously searching the stormy North Sea for their loved ones. Quite unlike those heroic figures are the diminutive silhouettes in the museum’s painting, who very well may represent the summer visitors from the nearby hotels whom Homer and his family are known to have joined on at least one occasion as they watched the moonlit sea on the rocks near Homer’s home and studio at Prout’s Neck, Maine. On that occasion, the artist left the group, completing on the porch of his studio the charcoal drawing that formed the basis of his painting A Summer Night, 1890 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), in which the figure at left in the museum’s painting seems to appear. Like the watercolor A Moonlit Sea, 1890 (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford), the museum’s painting may be a study for A Summer Night; or it may be an independent work of years earlier, related to the watercolor, Northeaster, dated 1883 (Brooklyn Museum), a daylight scene in which two women in tam-o’-shanter and round bonnet watch the sea from the rocks (although their positions are reversed). It can also be related to the painting Moonlight, Wood Island Light, 1894 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), because of the exceptionally bold technique of both paintings. According to the art historian William Downes, that picture was painted in 1894 during an impulsive four or five hours’ work one night, entirely by moonlight, a seemingly impossible illumination for judging colors. Because of its exceptionally free technique, the museum’s painting is difficult to date on the basis of style. The connection with the works of 1890 seems most persuasive. For Homer, the moonlit sea was a recurring romantic theme in which the otherwise threatening sea seems tamed and charmed. The violence of the sea in Moonlight on the Water is somewhat unusual within this group. On the back of the painting the artist’s brother Charles, his executor, indicated the date 1906, a period when Homer was known to have begun no new pictures, only repainting old ones. While there is no evidence of repainting on the picture’s present surface, it may have been at this time that Homer restretched the painting, greatly changing its proportions by folding portions of the painting back around the stretcher at the top and sides to give it its present, unusually elongated shape. In adopting this format, Homer may have meant to accentuate the characteristics of the painting that relate to the Japanese prints he admired -- the theme of the great wave, diagonal compositional elements, silhouetted figures, and strong surface design.
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About The Era

The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture....
The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture. Great riches were amassed by railroad tycoons and land barons, and along with this came the desire for a luxurious standard of living. Collectors filled their homes with European as well as American works of art. American artists, generally trained abroad, often painted in styles that were indistinguishable from their European counterparts.
Most Americans who studied abroad did so in the European academies, which promoted uplifting subject matter and a representational style that emphasized well-modeled, clearly defined forms and realistic color. Academic painting served American artists well, for their clients demanded elaborate large-scale paintings to demonstrate their wealth and social positions. With an emphasis on material objects and textures, academic artists immortalized their patrons’ importance in full-length portraits.
Academic painting dominated taste in Europe throughout the century. But in the 1860s impressionism emerged in France as a reaction to this hegemony. By the 1880s this “new painting” was still considered progressive. Mary Cassatt was the only American invited to participate in the revolutionary Paris impressionist exhibitions. Despite her participation and the early interest of several other American painters, few Americans explored impressionism until the 1890s. Impressionist painters no longer had to choose subject matter of an elevated character but instead could depict everyday scenes and incidents. Nor did impressionists have to record the physical world with the objective detail of a photograph. Artists were now encouraged to leave their studios and paint outside under different weather conditions. American impressionists used the new aesthetic to capture the charm and beauty of the countryside and the city as well as the quiet delicacy of domestic interiors.
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Label

An art critic as well as a painter, Guy Du Bois was the son of the noted critic Henri Pene De Bois and was at ease in literary and artistic circles....
An art critic as well as a painter, Guy Du Bois was the son of the noted critic Henri Pene De Bois and was at ease in literary and artistic circles. He recorded the Roaring Twenties by focusing on attractive young people and their chic clothes and lifestyle. As a student of Robert Henri he was thus following his teacher’s insistence that he should depict his own era and environment. But in An American Oriental he practiced a more stringent, ashcan-school approach. The figure is not one of Du Bois’s typical sleek modern figures, but a more curvaceous, earthy type. The term “Oriental” at that time could refer to a member of numerous foreign ethnic groups; here it identifies the subject as one of the many recent immigrants to the United States. Her black hair, wide dark eyes, and full lips suggest that she might be an Italian, a Jew, or a Gypsy. Her plain blouse and skirt confirm her status as a working-class woman. Du Bois presents her in a confrontational manner and on a larger scale than his usual figures. Her hands clutch the railing behind her, so that nothing obstructs our view of her body. Staring out at the viewer she seems far from shy or reticent. Du Bois has cropped her head at the top of the canvas, a compositional device used by the impressionists to convey the immediacy of contemporary life. Attitudes toward immigrants varied, but the artist seems to suggest that these new Americans could not be ignored.
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Bibliography

  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.