Thursday, May 31, 2018

Winslow Homer's "Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)" - The Error

Wikipedia Commons

I would bet that several of Earwigoagin's readers have a print of this iconic painting hanging up in their house. Painted by Winslow Homer in the 1870's, this oil painting depicts an American catboat returning from a recreational fishing expedition. For me, this painting pushes so many buttons about the joy of sailing, moreso than any other sailing painting. But there is a major, glaring error.

It was my friend, Tom Price, that pointed out the error in this painting. The tiller is over the traveller bar. You wouldn't be able to tack this catboat without the traveller block catching up on the tiller!

I was over at the National Gallery of Art for a Cezanne exhibition when I decided to go search out the original "Breezing Up".  Getting up close I could see that the tiller was painted very translucently. You could see the traveller bar under the tiller. There may be several reasons. Tom Price maintains that Winslow Homer never quite finished the painting and he may have intended to go back and bring the traveller bar to the fore. It may be that Winslow Homer decided the aesthetics of having the tiller go over the traveller bar out-weighed any realism it sacrificed. When Winslow painted the tiller translucently it was his way of saying to an astute viewer, "Hey I know this won't work but deal with it."

It is interesting to note that there hangs next to "Breezing Up" a smaller, somewhat identical painting by Winslow Homer, the catboat in this painting named "Flirt". In this smaller study before he painted "Breezing Up", Winslow Homer has painted the tiller correctly under the traveller bar.

As an aside, if one takes a closer look at the way Winslow Homer painted the faces of the two boys sitting/laying forward and the skipper, it seems these three are looking intently to leeward, at something off to the left of the painting. Given the darkish clouds in the painting, was it some nasty weather to leeward, a thunderstorm perhaps? Or was it an approaching boat that may have been on a collision course?

It seems to me that Winslow Homer was trying to introduce some tension into "Breezing Up". It may be wrong to assume this picture is about a lanquid, relaxing, sailing vibe, as we have traditionally interpreted "Breezing Up" . Unfortunately this intense staring tension of skipper and crew doesn't translate unless one is in front of the original and looking closely.

Click here to see what Wikipedia has to say about the painting.

I've dragged Tom Price's comment over to the main post. (After all he is an artist.)
"The dynamic tension of the sun on the boys vs the darkening clouds, The pull on the rope tiller extension and the bow of the sprit under compression all contribute. Substituting an anchor for a 4th boy sounds like a compositional ploy or maybe he just thought an anchor was easier to paint than a boy after the first state."


Tom Price said...

Infrared reflectography has revealed the many changes he made to the composition during this time, including the removal of a fourth boy near the mast and a second schooner in the distance. At one point the adult held both the sheet and the tiller, a position initially adapted from an oil study of 1874 titled The Flirt.[1] The painting's message is positive; despite the choppy waves, the boaters look relaxed. The anchor that replaced the boy in the bow was understood to symbolize hope.[2] The boy holding the tiller looks forward to the horizon, a statement of optimism about his future and that of the young United States.
From Wikipedia
I like your analysis better, Rod. The dynamic tension of the sun on the boys vs the darkening clouds, The pull on the rope tiller extension and the bow of the sprit under compression all contribute. Substituting an anchor for a 4th boy sounds like a compositional ploy or maybe he just thought an anchor was easier to paint than a boy after the first state. Don't know about that "symbolizing hope" stuff....

Peter Belenky said...

A comparable interpretation of symbolic meaning in marine art is offered by NGA's online page of Hopper's "The Ground Swell,"
suggesting that the distant source of the waves and the warning bell is the approaching European war over the horizon.

Another painting at NGA by a great artist, Whistler's "Wapping," displays an even more egregious error that can't be ascribed to negligent brushwork.

The bowsprit and jib boom of a large vessel cross the background to the left (minus some rigging) while the sprit, mast, and brailed mainsail of a barge face to the right, occupying the space where the rest of the larger vessel's rig should have appeared.

Alden Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alden Smith said...

Well, I clicked on the painting, increasing it to full size and then took a good long look with my magnifying glass. It looks to me that the tiller in this painting is UNDER the mainsheet traveler as it should be! But I am 66 and wear glasses. Maybe this is the other painting you mentioned in your posting??

(I deleted the previous comment because of a grammatical error).

Boatmik said...

I think the error is a kindof counterpoise insider joke.

Non sailors will look at the lovely composition, the diagonals, the curves, the golden ratio.

The lovely composition of the figures, the resolve on their faces.

But sailors can see the total chaos of this lovely composed group the moment the boat tacks.

And almost hear the swearing.


Tweezerman said...

I think this quote from Charles Kessler, author of Left Bank Art Blog, is apropos.

"I remember Clement Greenberg wrote something to the effect that all a critic can authentically ever do is point out things about the work that may have been overlooked."

Tweezerman said...


What a glorious, chaotic, busy, yet delightful composition is Whistler's harbor scene "Wapping". I've never heard of the painting before. Thanks for pointing it out but I think you would have to be standing next to me, whilst in front of the painting, pointing out the errors, before I would totally comprehend what is missing.

Tweezerman said...


Computer reproductions of great art are notoriously variable. All one has to do is Google a famous painting and you get all sorts of color schemes and light. Stand five feet in front of the original "Breezing Up" and the opaque brown tiller appears to go over the traveller bar. Get really close and it appears that Winslow Homer painted the tiller translucently after he had laid down the traveller bar. I certainly welcome other interpretations from those who have viewed the original (and next time I'm over at the NGA, I'll stop back).

my2fish said...

what a find! even zoomed in closely, it's hard to tell, but does look like it is over the traveler bar.