Winslow Homer, the eye-surgeon

Water color painting of Winslow Homer entitled Adirondacks Guide ( 1892).

Inset: Detail of the guide’s right eye showing the blue iris, black pupil and the corneal blade mark by the artist.

 

Although the 19th Century American painter Winslow Homer has been hailed as a lover of the land because of his striking watercolors, he also had an unmatched ability of reflecting the mood of the people in his paintings1. He accomplished these affects by using diverse water color techniques such as sanding, scraping, scratching and spraying. In short, he was a masterful surgeon of the canvas as characterized by Robert M. Poole2, a renowned art and nature writer. Mr. Poole summarizes one of “Doctor Homer’s surgical procedures” as follows: “Homer deployed a knife blade to flick a speck of color from the eye of guide Rufus Wallace, paddling a canoe in The Adirondacks Guide ( 1892) (Figure). The artist’s precision surgery, discovered by microscopic analysis, puts a well-placed glint in the boatman’s eye at a moment of reflection.”
The original dimensions of this painting are 329×545 mm and area of the right eye on paper measures approximately 8×4 mm. Considering that the knife mark measures about 1/10 of the eye area its greatest dimensions calculates to be 0.8×0.4 mm (see figure inset). Bearing in mind the small size of the knife mark one can not help but admire the steadiness of Homer’s hand not only lifting a minute spot of paint off without perforating the paper but also positioning this clear zone to exactly where he wanted, on the superior mid-corneal curvature. One point to his favor was that the painting was done on thick, moderately textured ivory wove paper, which allowed him some depth underneath the paint to be flicked off. I wonder if he used an operating microscope, or more likely, a hand held magnifying glass?

 


(1) Johns E: Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation, University of California Press, 2002
(2) Poole RM: Hidden Depths. Smithsonian Magazine 2008(5): 86-95.

ZEYNEL A. KARCIOGLU, MD
UVA, Department of Ophthalmology
Charlottesville, Virginia, 22908-0715