Winslow Homers “Breezing Up” The 1873 masterpiece “Breezing Up”, by Winslow Homer located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is an oil on canvas painting that measures 23 3/13 X 38 1/6 in. The primary subject of this painting is a man with three boys in a small wooden sail boat that is moving along with what appears to be a fairly choppy sea. At the center of this painting is the stern of the sail boat. The oldest of the boys is sitting on the high end of the stern with his knees up and his bare feet planted flat on the deck in order to keep him from slipping down into the water. This image forms a powerful triangle in the center of the painting.
The boys use of only one hand on the tiller line combined with his relaxed posture suggest that he is very much at ease with his responsibility of steering the boat. His face is only visible in a semi-profile view which exposes his chin, left cheek, and eye socket. These features are well defined against thick layers of puffy clouds which are lingering over the water. Like the others in the boat he is facing away from the setting sun which causes the light to reflect off the back of his long sleeved shirt and hat. Just to the boys right is the man in the boat who is presumably the father of the boys. His seated position below the deck allows the viewer only to see his face shoulders, arms, and hands.
His red long sleeved shirt is the brightest color in the painting, and his calloused hands show strength as he holds the halyard firm in the cleat with a fully extended arm. Of the four people in the boat he is the only one with a troubled look on his face. According to David Prown this is a very common characteristic in Homers work. He says: Although the adults of Homers world seem isolated, his children frolic together in a cheerful world of laughter and mutuality. For Homer, growing up seems to imply a loss, a fall from paradise, removal from happy, carefree innocence and high spirits to a serious, lonely existence in which each man is an island unto himself.
(Prown 86) This is the perfect description of the expressions of the people in this painting. The children are clearly relaxed and content, but the father has an expression that suggests that he has something weighing heavy on his mind, and that he is receiving only temporary relief as he relaxes on the water with his sons. The other two boys are relaxing up towards the bow of the boat. The older of the two is stretched out across the deck covering the width of the bow with his leather shoes hovering inches over the water. The youngest of the boys is sitting up right on the deck with his feet resting inside the boat and he has a pleasant look of deep thought on his face. Clearly all of these boys are relaxed and content with their surroundings. Numerous fish inside of the boat suggest that this group has had an afternoon of fishing and recreation.
They are not dressed for serious fishing, so there is a good chance they are out there strictly for leisure. A building off the bow on the distant shore is barely visible, and combined with the long shadows of the setting sun, it seems that they are heading home. Homers soft blue sky and puffy white clouds take up 2/3 of the canvas, leaving only the bottom third for the water and the horizon. The sky is completely empty except for a lone gull whos wings are lit up by the sun as is hovers directly in line with what appears to be a tiny illuminated sail of another boat on the very distant horizon. Homer also has an uncommon ability to recreate curves just as they would appear in nature.
He uses this ability to capture the shape and form of the rolling waves in the sea, by even more than that he uses it to capture the human experience. The use of the sunlight as it reflects off the cloths of the people in the boat adds to the realistic nature of this painting. The wrinkles of white cotton shirts of the boys are accented brilliantly as the sun illuminates and caused shadows on different parts of their arms. The four people in this painting express more with their body language that they do with their facial expressions. Particularly the curve of their backs is evidence of their state of relaxation.
In the children there is no evidence of tension in their bodies. This is in contrast with the father’s posture where tension is quite evident. The viewer’s position directly off the stern of the sailboat is a privileged one. It allows Homer’s style of American realism to be truly revealed. The exact details of the small wooden boat are astonishing.
He captures everything from the stitches in the sail to the twist of the lines. Even the grain of the wood in the hull and the mast are perfectly visible. The attention to detail is magnificent. The use of light and shadows across the sail form a drastic contrast. This contrast gives the viewer a real feel for the way the sun is shinning across the water.
The spray of water that washes over the bow as the boat bounces through the choppy water is another example of Homers close attention to detail. There is also a merchant ship on the horizon on the right side of the canvas that though distant still retains a great deal of detail. The sense of comfort and serenity on the boys faces is an interesting contrast to the expression of worry on their fathers face, but this worry clearly is not related to their situation on the water. This work was completed towards the early part of Homer’s painting career, and this is apparent by the look and shape of the water. As his life progressed, Homer began to focus on the power of the water in the sea, and he earned a reputation for being one of the best painters of his time in regards to his ability to capture the motion and and power of waves.
In this painting there is less attention given to the water causing it to have very general and undefined characteristic. This neutral aspect of the water gives the painting an over all feel of relaxation and comfort. Prown gives an interesting description to this painting in in his book American Painting From its Beginnings to the Armory Show. In this book he states: Breezing Up is a seagoing version of Snap the Whip. The boys exert a mutual effort for their common delight. One adult is present, briefly privileged to share their pleasure.
The day is sunny; the air and water are alive. Wind fills the sails, and the boat fairly shudders as it drives through the choppy sea. The thrust of air against the canvas pulls every line taut, and hands work to hold this living machine, quick with the breath of nature under control. (Prown 87). This is a nice description of the work.
It seems that one of this paintings main focuses is the pleasure and beauty of children in nature. Bibliography Prown, Jules. American Painting From its Beginnings to the Armory Show. World Publishing. Cleveland, Ohio. 1969.