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What Matters Most
Miroslav Volf suggests: "The most important political question of our time is the one we tend not to think is political at all. Who are we—you, I, and the nations to which we belong? What kind of human beings and what kind of nation should we aspire to become?"
Winslow Homer's biographer William Cross joins Evan Rosa for a conversation on art, attention, beauty, contradiction, race, and the struggle for America. Features in-depth discussion of some of Winslow Homer's most beloved and intriguing paintings.
We often think that telling the truth only applies to words. But American painter Winslow Homer (February 24, 1836 – September 29, 1910) told the truth in pencil, water color, and famously, oil paintings. Coming of age in antebellum America, starting his artistic career as the Civil War began, and dramatically painting truth to power during the complicated and failed Reconstruction era—Winslow Homer looked long and hard at America in its moral complications and struggle toward justice. But he also looked long and hard at the natural world—a harsh, sometimes brutal, but nonetheless ordered world. Sometimes red in tooth and claw, sometimes shining rays of grace and glory upon human bodies, Homer's depiction of the human encounter with the world as full of energy and full of spirited struggle, and therefore dignity.
William Cross is author and biographer of Winslow Homer: American Passage—a biography of an artist who painted America in conflict and crisis, with a moral urgency and an unflinching depiction of the human spirit's struggle for survival and search for grace. As a consultant to art and history museums, a curator, and an art critic and scholar, when Bill sees the world, he's looking long for beauty and grace, and often finding it in art.
In this conversation, Bill Cross and I discuss the morally urgent art and perspective of Winslow Homer. We talk about the historical context of American life before, during, and after the Civil War. Including the role of Christianity and religious justification of the Confederacy and the institution of slavery. Bill comments on the beautiful and bracing expression of Black life in Winslow Homer's work—truly radical for the time. But Homer's work goes beyond human social and political struggles. We also discuss the role of nature in his work—particularly the human struggle against the power and indifference of the ocean and the wild, untamed animal kingdom.
Throughout, you might consider referencing each of the paintings we discuss, all of which are available in the show notes and can be found online for further viewing and reflection.
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- William R. Cross, Winslow Homer: American Passage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)
- Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents
Click below for painting references
- Prisoners from the Front (1866)
- The Brush Harrow (1866)
- Dressing for the Carnival (1877)
- Visit from the Old Mistress (1876)
- The Gulf Stream (1885)
- Fox Hunt (1893)
About William Cross
William R. Cross is an independent scholar and a consultant to art and history museums. He served as the curator of Homer at the Beach: A Marine Painter’s Journey, 1869–1880, a nationally renowned 2019 exhibition at the Cape Ann Museum on the formation of Winslow Homer as a marine painter. He is the chairman of the advisory board of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Cross and his wife, Ellen, the parents of two grown sons, live on Cape Ann, north of Boston, Massachusetts.
About Winslow Homer: American Passage
The definitive life of the painter who forged American identity visually, in art and illustration, with an impact comparable to that of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain in poetry and prose—yet whose own story has remained largely untold.
In 1860, at the age of twenty-four, Winslow Homer (1836–1910) sold Harper’s Weekly two dozen wood engravings, carved into boxwood blocks and transferred to metal plates to stamp on paper. One was a scene that Homer saw on a visit to Boston, his hometown. His illustration shows a crowd of abolitionists on the brink of eviction from a church; at their front is Frederick Douglass, declaring “the freedom of all mankind.”
Homer, born into the Panic of 1837 and raised in the years before the Civil War, came of age in a nation in crisis. He created multivalent visual tales, both quintessentially American and quietly replete with narrative for and about people of all races and ages. Whether using pencil, watercolor, or, most famously, oil, Homer addressed the hopes and fears of his fellow Americans and invited his viewers into stories embedded with universal, timeless questions of purpose and meaning.
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. In Winslow Homer: American Passage, William R. Cross reveals the man behind the art. It is the surprising story of a life led on the front lines of history. In that life, this Everyman made archetypal images of American culture, endowed with a force of moral urgency through which they speak to all people today.
- This podcast featured William R. Cross
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School https://faith.yale.edu/about
- Support For the Life of the World podcast by giving to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture: https://faith.yale.edu/give