August’s Featured Painting: Winslow Homer’s “The Country School”

August 8th, 2013

Each month we are celebrate an American painting. This month’s featured work is Winslow Homer’s The Country School (1871)r. Born in Boston, Massachusetts (1836–1910), Winslow Homer grew to become one of America’s most beloved landscape painters.

Homer had a comfortable, though unique, upbringing. While Homer was largely self-taught, his mother’s work as an amateur watercolorist piqued his interest in art. Homer’s father, Charles Homer, was an eager but unsuccessful businessman who joined the California gold rush, failing to strike gold. Charles Homer then left the family to raise funds in Europe, but none of his business ventures panned out.

Homer’s artistic career began at the age of 19 when he served as an apprentice for J. H. Bufford, a commercial lithographer from Boston. The work was tedious, mostly involving repetitively etching sheet music covers, and Homer vowed to be an independent artist after he left the apprenticeship. “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and never shall have any,” Homer said.

In 1859, Homer opened his own studio in New York City, and attended classes at the National Academy of Design. Despite having only about a year of self-training, Harper’s Weekly noticed Homer’s talent for painting and hired him as a freelance artist. Homer swiftly headed to the front lines of the Civil War in 1861 to document the scenes. Homer sketched camp life as well as battle scenes, and used his detailed sketches to create a series of war paintings when he returned to his New York studio.

Homer’s first big break came when his Home, Sweet Home (1863) was displayed at the National Academy of Design to critical acclaim, earning Homer a position as Academician. After the Civil War, Homer’s work evoked nostalgia for simpler times, including modest family gatherings and pristine landscapes. Homer’s work branched out from oil on canvas to watercolor works throughout the 1870s, and he traveled throughout Europe on artistic sabbaticals.

In the 1880s, Homer’s artwork frequently included women engaged in work, a break from traditional artistic depictions of women. The New York Evening Post declared that Homer’s 1880s works put him “in a place by himself as the most original and one of the strongest American painters,” but it wasn’t until 1900 that Homer was financially stable.

Painted in 1871, The Country School depicts a serene one-room schoolhouse led by a young female teacher. The students are seen each reading their primers, and are largely separated by gender. Close inspection reveals there is a young boy crying, sitting on the girls’ side of the room. The small vase of flowers on the teacher’s desk and the bright green grass on the hill outside the window remind the viewer of its rural setting.

Questions for students: How would you describe the mood of this painting? Carefully consider the teacher, the various groupings of children, and the contrast of the interior classroom and the view from the windows outside. Do you think the children are enjoying their lesson? What does this painting suggest about the experience of learning? Would you like to attend such a school? Why or why not? How does this painting compare to depictions of a modern classroom?

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