Employed as an illustrator during the Civil War, Winslow Homer began to work in oil paint in 1862, remaining, for the most part, self-taught. His early paintings demonstrate how his skills as a draftsman and printmaker informed his art: graphic qualities such as broad, simple planes and carefully constructed spatial organization appear in many of his works, including Croquet Scene. After the war, Homer became interested in country life, depicting farmers and their families, and the upper-middle class vacationing at summer resorts. In oil paintings, watercolors, and wood engravings, he portrayed these aspects of contemporary American existence with acute observational and technical skills, rarely exaggerating or sentimentalizing his subjects.
Croquet was introduced to America at mid-century from Ireland and England. Homer recorded people enjoying the game as a leisure pastime in a series of paintings, of which the Art Institute’s is an outstanding example. Despite the attention given to the players’ clothing, in the bright sunlight the forms of the four figures seem to flatten out against the lawn and trees behind them. Indeed, the contrast of the dense, dark foliage and the bright hues of the women’s fashionable dresses throw the figures into high relief. As the woman in red prepares to place her foot upon the croquet ball (and then presumably knock away her opponent’s ball), the male figure in the center leans down to adjust the placement of the ball. This gesture could be a chivalrous effort to help the woman maintain her modest pose, or an attempt to view the woman’s ankle. In this way, Croquet Scene embodies Homer’s consummate ability to capture both visual and societal details.
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