Puzzling over Meaning in Winslow Homer’s Kissing the Moon

Kissing the Moon, 1904, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. (Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, bequest of Candace C. Stimson, 1946.19)

It’s meant to be disorienting.

I’ve written about so many subjects the last few months: China, India, Venice, Madrid. This week, I’d like to stay local, more or less, and write about one painting. Kissing the Moon, by Winslow Homer (1836–1910) is the strangest picture. Homer, Eakins, Cole, and Whistler are America’s Old Masters — yes, there are a few more — but this late painting, a big, stunning thing from 1904, has been ignored.

It’s in the stellar collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy’s museum in Andover, Mass. It’s a place for connoisseurs and students, free and open to the public. It’s also one of the best collections of American art, tucked in a private high-school campus in an elegant Charles Platt-designed building. All the players from Copley to Pollock to Mark Bradford and Cindy Sherman are represented by work of the highest quality. I was the director there for ten years and looked at this painting every day.

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I haven’t written much about the Addison. Nothing of interest to write about. My successor was a zilch — that happens — but ding, dong, she’s just gone to a new job — in Detroit. She’ll be forgotten five minutes after she’s left.

Kissing the Moon is an end-of-life picture. Homer is nearing retirement as well as nearing seventy. I’ve focused on many things but have always been drawn to the work of great artists at the very beginning of their careers — the juvenile work pointing to genius — and at the end, when they couldn’t care less about their patrons or critics. At the beginning, they’re giddy. At the end, they’re focused on the things that mean most to them. They focus on essentials, a last will and testament but this time painted in oil and visual, not verbal.

Homer painted very few works after this. It wasn’t commissioned, so it’s entirely his conception. It’s one of the biggest things he painted, but I have to call it arbitrary and shocking. By 1890, Homer was eliminating figures from his painting. His most renowned works from after 1900 were seascapes done in Prout’s Neck in Maine. They’re what I’d call realist — you can walk through Prout’s Neck and see the spots he painted, with distinctive cliffs but each crashing wave different from the last. It’s an eternal battle between land and sea. Homer was already thinking about eternity. But then, in 1904, he paints Kissing the Moon, bringing back the figure, and three immense fishermen at that.

It’s meant to be disorienting. Four uneven bands — the sunset, clear sky, waves, and a black triangle — are punctuated by three heads and the moon. Homer said next to nothing about it, which is an art historian’s dream, and he didn’t leave a widow. Artist’s widows are keepers of the flame and often epic trouble makers.

Looking at it — and the composition is simple — I start with the reds on top, signaling a sunset and the end of day. That tells us it’s not exactly a nocturne and certainly not a day scene. We’re in an in-between time, a time of indefinity. In Kissing the Moon, this invites us to start looking closely. Because he uses a structure of compositional strips, with diagonals to make them intriguing, I start from top to bottom. All of our expectations of the physical world are turned upside. The waves look like mountain peaks. The palette’s monochromatic, so moon and sea merge. The waves kiss the moon. Our feeling of gravity is unsettled since the three figures sink and rise in the swell. The three heads are from our world. They’re men. The moon, the fourth circle, is from an abstract world. There’s no land, either. Homer rarely paints seascapes without some terra firma. We’re out there, in the wide open.

Homer gives us no mooring, but in the face of the fisherman on the left, the only one we see, is a Yankee mountain, placed incongruently in the ocean, but this picture is all about incongruence. He’s craggy, stoic, strong, brave, and silent. He’s a northern New England type.

I put Kissing the Moon in my office years ago for a week, over my computer so I could look at it throughout the day and try to puzzle it out. After a few minutes of sitting at my desk, looking up, I focused on the big, black, triangular wave in the lower right-hand corner. It’s not just your everyday pretty wave. This thing has purpose and command. It’s not malevolent and looks like black velvet. Tiny crests, white spots that hit the eye, seem to reach for the boat like fingers.

The first thing to remember about Homer is that he was America’s preeminent newspaper illustrator in the 1860s and 1870s. That’s how he became famous — and rich. In the age before newspaper photography, the illustrator supported the story in suggesting flashes of momentous action occurring over split seconds. It was here and now, action art. Things happen fast in Homer’s work, a gust of wind, or a knock on a croquet ball, or a gun blast create a moment-by-moment change. That’s why we read a newspaper or check news websites: to get breaking news.

Now, I’ll go back to November 15, 1862, Homer’s Army of the Potomac — A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, an illustration he did for Harper’s Weekly. Homer was 26. Kissing the Moon came 42 years later. Our sharpshooter is about to blast some unlucky slob’s head off, so it’s not about ambiguity. It’s about an instant in time, and it’s about stealth. It’s a news story in a news cycle. It’s frankly violent.

The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, from Harper’s Weekly, November 15, 1862, by Winslow Homer. Wood engraving on wove paper. (Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, purchased as the gift of Warren P. Snyder (PA 1936), 1990.6)

In Kissing the Moon, time is slower and more elusive. It’s a big painting, which slows us down visually, and not a small, black-and-white illustration on a magazine page. It’s not about the news of the day or the glass hives where we live. It’s post-news, where the everyday world dissolves and eternity takes us to a next, very different place.

A man of Homer’s generation in America knew his Shakespeare, Bible, and Classical Greek mythology. Looking at the big black wave, the two faceless fishermen, in an open sea, at sunset, carrying that gorgeous, tough guy, I think Homer was evoking the ferrymen carrying the dead across the River Styx to the afterlife. I suppose he wasn’t asking “what happened” as a reporter would but “what comes next.”

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