William R. Cross chronicles the life story of the great painter and illustrator Winslow Homer (1836-1910), who captured America in the crucible of the Civil War and contributed to shaping American identity to this day. Like his contemporaries Twain and Whitman, Homer captured the landscape of a rapidly changing country with an artist's probing insight. His tale is one of America in all its complexity and contradiction, as he evolved and adapted to the restless spirit of invention transforming his world.
[Homer's] reticence would seem to pose a challenge for the biographer, but in William R. Cross’s new—and certain to be definitive—life of the artist, the gaps in the painter’s private history are filled in by detailed accounts of people he knew and places he visited ... He constructs a reliable narrative of the artist’s movements and residences, of his friendships and financial arrangements and, most important, of his shift from fluent magazine illustrator to painter of enigmatic depictions of nature and everyday life ... Mr. Cross captures much of the artist’s achievement in his fine biography. If Homer’s reserve leads him to speculate on unknowable aspects of the artist’s life—what he might have read, whether the lifelong bachelor fell in love—his interpretation of the artwork is first-rate ... William R. Cross has a special talent for discerning details most of us overlook, and he provides a rich commentary on Homer’s technique, his influences, and even occasional submerged biographical reference, which the painter rarely allowed himself to convey. The biographer’s close attention is worthy of his subject.
Cross’s scrupulous new book is devoted to Homer as both man and artist and is largely a pleasure to read, despite the inevitable difficulties of the subject: call him repressed; call him, as Cross does, 'a misfit by nature' or even a 'human periscope,' who liked to observe others without being seen. Cross tries to circumvent these difficulties by placing the life in a wider context, particularly in Homer’s early years ... How the young man managed such personal and political discord is unknown. Cross, whose scruples sometimes lead to a Homer-like reticence, refuses even to ask questions ... Cross seeks to provide a wider context, and while the material remains thin, one is grateful for every scrap that shows Homer living as a painter among painters ... Cross’s portrayal of Homer, as contemporary as the Met’s, emphasizes his 'empathy with Blacks and Native Americans.' The latter part of the statement is not untrue, although Homer’s contact with Native Americans was limited: a Montaukett chief on Long Island whom he met (and painted) in 1874—Cross relates that Homer’s wealthy uncle swindled the tribe out of land—and Indigenous guides hired to lead a fishing trip he took with his older brother in Quebec, people whose work in making canoes he documented and admired. These paintings have never been well known, and Cross’s contribution here is particularly fresh.
Cross’s book...is a hefty, traditional 'life of.' Not particularly interested in investigating systemic power and privilege, Cross draws out aspects of life that may have figured more consciously in Homer’s own mind, acknowledging without contempt, for instance, Homer’s pragmatic approach to business ... Cross also gives substantial space to religion ... There are still huge holes, including the nature, or even existence, of Homer’s love life ... Cross alerts us to the theories, but warns that there are only 'a few shreds of evidence' of any specific sexual dalliance ... Art-historical queries run into similar dead ends ... The tale chugs along on a track of 'would haves' and 'must haves'.