October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Elizabeth Strout shares her responses to Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts and The Gale, two of the Winslow Homer paintings in the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.
Barbara Weinberg: This is Barbara Weinberg, curator—with my colleague Carrie Rebora Barratt—of the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The exhibition includes more than one hundred iconic works by many of America's most acclaimed artists, who tell stories about their own times by depicting ordinary people engaged in life's tasks and pleasures. Their paintings range in date from the Revolutionary era to the eve of World War I.
We invited Elizabeth Strout, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction, to share with us her responses to two paintings by Winslow Homer that are in the exhibition. The first is Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts, which is also known as High Tide. It was painted in 1870, when American cities had grown so much that urbanites yearned to pursue rural recreation and leisure activities.
We see in High Tide three young women wearing the heavy woolen bathing dresses that were then in fashion. They've taken a dip in the ocean and are now regrouping. One wrings out her hair, another puts on her shoe, and the third—who's shrouded in a dark cloak—is turned away. Homer invites us to speculate about each of the figures and the strangely agitated dog. Homer's preference for ambiguity was typical of pictorial storytelling in the post–Civil War years.
Author Elizabeth Strout responded to that ambiguity by composing her own story about High Tide.
Elizabeth Strout: I was looking at this painting and I was struck immediately with the stance of the dog. And so I started to think about who these young women were and I began to imagine that they were cousins.
They're here because their parents have gathered for an annual family time in a cottage on the coast here. And so these girls have known each other all their lives. They're at that age where they can no longer play the games they did when they were little or climb trees or build sandcastles, so there's some tension here among them that has to do, I think, a great deal with their age.
And they've decided to go off with the dog for a swim—two of them have caps on their heads that suggest this—and the girl with her back to us has already gone in the water and is keeping herself warm with a cloak. It's the girl with the long reddish hair who has caused the problem for them, I think. She's a moody, capricious girl who said earlier she didn't want to swim—thus the lack of a swim cap on her head—but in fact did go rushing into the water when she saw her cousins swimming, and is now furious because her dress is wet, her hair is wet, and she blames her cousins and they're just fed up with her.
They did not pull her into the water. She went willingly and wildly. And now they are left with her histrionics. And even the dog has paused in the face of her. He was having a frisky, wonderful time on the beach, yapping at seagulls, and came running back to the girls. And his stance, combined with the glance of the girl sitting on the beach, confirms to me that this red-haired girl has caused a pleasant day to become unpleasant.
The girl sitting is putting her beach shoe back on, having taken it off earlier as she got ready to go into the water. But because of the fracas caused by her cousin, she's putting her shoe back on. And the girls will return back to the cottage, where the two with caps will furtively complain to their mothers about their high-strung cousin; I mean, you know, adolescent girls caged up together too long, and one of them is a little, you know, higher strung than the others. She's capricious and there is something sexual going on there, and her—I just sort of saw her as a girl who's coming of age in a society where she can't just necessarily run out and have a boyfriend the way she probably wants to.
This landscape is very familiar to me. This particular painting is Massachusetts, and I grew up on the coast of Maine, where a lot of his other paintings were. But there's enough of a similarity that it's very familiar to me.
I think it's summer there. And that particular beach is more where people would go to vacation. So this is a bit of a vacation spot and these girls are dressed nicely enough to suggest that they're there with their families for some sort of holiday. Further up in Maine that wouldn't be so much the case, as in, like, The Gale, for example.
Barbara Weinberg: In 1881 and '82, Winslow Homer lived and worked in Cullercoats, England, a village on the coast of the North Sea. There he recorded the arduous lives of the people who made their living from the sea. Upon his return to New York, Homer painted The Gale, which originally showed a woman—perhaps a Cullercoats fisherman's wife—with a baby strapped to her back. She was making her way along a promontory near the town's Life Brigade House, where men were preparing for a rescue at sea. Homer's canvas received indifferent reviews from the critics when he exhibited it in 1883. After he moved from New York to Prout's Neck, on the coast of Maine, in 1883, he reworked it, and made the narrative less obvious by painting over the background details.
Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer Prize for her book Olive Kitteridge, a collection of short stories about a woman and her family and friends living on the Maine coast. She shares with us her scenario for what's taking place in The Gale.
Elizabeth Strout: In this painting what I notice first is the very strong arm of this young woman. So that makes me feel that there's not danger in this situation. I imagine she's a young woman from the coastal region and she's not a stranger to hard work nor to these winds and storms. She has a firm hold on this baby, and the way the baby peeks out suggests to me that he's comfortable, is used to being attached to his mother.
In other words, there's no panic in this painting. And while there's a suggestion, of course, that she's gone to look for someone in the storm, I don't quite see it that way. I think of her more as a young wife who got tired of staying inside, cutting up potatoes for a stew while her husband tended to the tying up of his boat. So she's taken her baby and gone out, not from worry but from a desire to be in the elements.
She is standing close to the water, walking close to the water, but I don't feel any fear for her. I think of her as someone who grew up in this region and played on these flat, tilting rocks when she was a child, and she seems very sure-footed now. The area of blue water right above her flying apron makes me think there's some break in the clouds and that this is in many ways just a gloriously windy day, not unfamiliar to her particularly. And that she's left the house to get some air, to let the winds wash over her.
There are times when she wishes she were a man so she did not have to be confined to domestic chores. But she's a good-natured, practical young woman who loves her baby very much. And the idea of being a man only comes to her very fleetingly and without real longing, just a brief thought. She is who she is and her joys are her child and the elements of nature.
Barbara Weinberg: These works, along with the other great paintings in the exhibition, can be viewed online at metmuseum.org in the special feature for American Stories. There, as on the Audio Guide program in the exhibition galleries themselves, you can also hear a range of perspectives by Carrie Rebora Barratt and me, as well as by artists, historians, and other experts from a variety of fields.
The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr., Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.
It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 12, 2009, through January 24, 2010.