Winslow Homer - The Obtuse Bard (draft 20150402) screen 011
From the preface by the editor J. Shawcross
S T Coleridge Biographia Literaria, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1907
Coleridge saw in Allston's view of nature, a view that was similar to what Welles had written, for in 1815, Coleridge wrote to Allston,
To you alone does it seem to have been given to know what nature is - not the dead shapes, the outward letter, but nature revealing itself in the phenomena, or rather attempting to reveal itself. Now the power of producing the true ideals is no other, in my belief, than to take the will for the deed. The great artist does that which nature would do, if only the disturbing forces were abstracted.
Welles sought correspondence of the natural with the ideal. Allston's position is the same, recorded in his Lectures on Art, published posthumously by his nephew, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Allston wrote,
But it must not be inferred that originality consists in any contradiction to Nature; for, were this allowed and carried out, it would bring us to the conclusion, that, the greater the contradiction, the higher the Art. We insist only on the modification of the natural by the personal; for Nature is, and ever must be, at least the sensuous ground of all Art: and where the outward and inward are so united that we cannot separate them, there shall we find the perfection of Art. So complete a union, has, perhaps, never been accomplished, and may be impossible; it is certain, however, that no approach to excellence can ever be made, if the idea of such a union be not constantly looked to by the artist as his ultimate aim.
Allston wanted realism, being true to Nature, representing the "outward," while also painting the "inward" perceptions seen. While he acknowledged that included some "modification of the natural by the personal," Allston requires that the personal perceptions come from Nature. What Allston described as "the modification of the natural by the personal" is what Coleridge described as "The great artist does that which nature would do, if only the disturbing forces were abstracted." In the words of Benjamin Welles, "The mind here is not left merely to its own operation, reasoning on subjects of its own suggestion, without the standard of perceptible truth for the conclusion of such abstractions." They are all saying the same thing, the artist is not just painting Nature, the artist is painting what is seen, including these illusions. This is realism, but it also includes the phenomenological realities of the artist's perceptions. Such phenomenological realities include what we now term pareidolia.

Allston's faces are different than Mantegna and Vedder, whose representation of Nature was compromised, at least in the examples we saw previously. In the examples from Mantegna and Vedder, the spiritual object from the artist's imagination dominated and the representation of Nature was obviously distorted. In Nature, the images of such spiritual illusions does not require such obvious distortions, but there can be forms that correspond sufficiently, without distortion of the natural, to images in our stored memories of things previously seen, such that our memory becomes associated by what is visually before us, and we actually have an illusion, a perception of an object, that is not physically there, in the context of the picture. The definition of pareidolia does not require the distortion of Nature, in fact, the ideal definition of pareidolia does not permit the distortion of Nature.

By itself, an artwork is nothing but a physical object. Nature itself is but a collection of physical objects. It is consciousness that raises the physical to a higher level. For Allston, the "perfection of Art" required the artist to be able to reproduce an image of physical Nature and at the same time include the artists personal ideas and visions by placing suggestive forms with sufficient similarity to the matching stored ideas or visual images of the viewer, such that the suggestive forms would act as a catalyst to trigger the same perception in the viewer that the artist experienced. According to Allston, the objective correlatives were to function to suggest the image or idea to the mind of the viewer, and the viewer's imagination was required for the completion of the perception. The artist's thoughts as spiritual ideas and visual illusions only passively suggested by the objective correlatives, could then be perceived through a process that is amazing when it occurs, because the viewer's perception ends up as a replication of the artist's imagination, as recorded in the artwork, after interacting with the viewer's active imagination. Coleridge and Allston had very similar ideas on imagination, but applying those ideas to visual art is perhaps more difficult, especially when trying to pass a spiritual visual image from the artist's mind to the viewer's mind, without distorting the visual representation of Nature. Allston spent his life struggling with this seemingly impossible ideal, but you will see examples that show how Winslow Homer managed to do precisely that. Winslow Homer was Allston's ideal artist who painted the "outward and inward so united that we cannot separate them."

Consider this, which is usually taken as evidence that Winslow Homer was a "realist" in the Newtonian sense. John W. Beatty reported this conversation with Winslow Homer. Note Homer's use of the phrase "as it appears." "As it appears" is quite different than saying "as it is." "As it appears" includes Nature's outward and the artist's phenomenological inward. Beatty wrote,
There comes to my mind an incident which will illustrate his unyielding attitude towards absolute truth. On the occassion of one my visits to his home, we were picking our way along the coast, over the shelving rocks he painted so often and with such insight and power, when I suddenly said:--

"Mr. Homer, do you ever take the liberty, in painting nature, of modifying the color of any part?"

The inquiry seemed to startle him. Arresting his steps for an instant, he firmly clenched his hand, and bringing it down with a quick action, exclaimed:--

"Never! Never! When I have selected the thing carefully, I paint it exactly as it appears." (from Downes, 1911. p. xxvii)
Winslow Homer said, "exactly as it appears," not "as it is." Winslow Homer painted Nature exactly as it appeared to him and that was a view of Nature blended with his memories.


Copyright 1992-2015 Peter Bueschen
The presentation is available at The Obtuse Bard website