Homer’s The Boat Builders (1873)

Young, thoughtful boys building a boat. It's charming, however unlikely boys that age could build those boats. Perhaps they're adjusting them even if Builders was chosen by Homer. Building as creating links the image to Homer himself as others note. These boys, in concentration or contemplation, are innocent substitutes for the artist lost in his work. What has not been seen, as usual, are the visual gymnastics involved. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Winslow Homer, The Boat Builders (1873) Oil on canvas. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

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Turn the scene upside down and the sails and masts of the boats spell W and H for Winslow Homer (lower right), the H missing its crossbar as a probable sign of the process of being created. So much great art depicts a mental image in the artist's mind of the painting's own construction that we can be fairly certain Homer, a visual poet, is doing likewise1. Turn the picture right side up and the "real" ship in the distance (top) combines the two letter-forms with the H's crossbar still missing. As expressed in art and philosophy generally, nature is a mirror of our minds which Homer in turn interprets as being upside down.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Homer, The Boat Builders (1873) 
Bottom: Detail turned upside-down with diagram of same

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Mental images, according to those aware of them, are fragmented and chaotic, quite unlike the organised views we actually see.3 That's why, as EPPH has often shown, great masterpieces are full of veiled faces in fragmentary form, often of the artist himself.4 There is one here in the large rock formation in the lower left corner of the picture, a fairly complete representation of Homer's own features: two eye-sockets, a straight nose, an emphasized form for his bushy moustache and a prominent chin. The detail (far left) has been rotated upright to make comparison easier.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of The Boat Builders, rotated
Top R: Detail of a photograph of Winslow Homer
Bottom L: A diagram of the detail above.

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More fragments of faces can be seen in the rocks. The largest one, nasal-shaped, is a mirror-version of the small rock in the foreground but there are others. Artists have long used rock symbolism to convey the ancient roots of the human mind.5 Homer, who loved the rocky shoreline of New England, was no exception. He could read past art and so can you.

Captions for image(s) above:

Homer, Diagram of The Boat Builders

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Notes:

1. See an explanation and other examples under the theme Artist's Mind.

2. For more on mirrors and reflections in art, see the theme Mirrors.

3. My article "Cubism Explained" (2011) discusses fragmentation in more detail.

4. For many more examples of such metamorphic and fragmented faces, see the theme Veiled Faces.

5. See the post "Leonardo's Skull Rocks" (2014) and our entry on his Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6). See also Filippo Lippi’s Adoration in the Forest (c.1460), Dürer’s Mountain Hut in Ruins (1494-5), "Michelangelo Rocks in the Battle of Cascina", Rembrandt's Bathsheba at Her Bath (1643) Courbet's Landscape with Anthropomorphic Rocks (1873) and Degas' Rocks and Trees at Bagnoles-de-l’Ornec (1867).  

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 28 Jan 2017. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.