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."