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The Labor of Seeing: Pragmatism, Ideology, and Gender in Winslow Homer's The Morning Bell

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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I wish to tell two stories here. The first, the briefer one, centers on the opening pages of William James's “The Sentiment of Rationality,” a seminal piece that helped launch James in the direction of pragmatism. The second, the bulk of the essay, focuses on a painting by Winslow Homer, The Morning Bell (ca. 1872, Figure 1), an early work that brings together Homer's interests in working-class figures, bucolic settings, and popular culture. There is little at first glance to link these two stories. While James proceeds to reinvent the notion of rationality, lending it an instrumental inflection that fits it for work in a postmetaphysical world, Homer conjures up images of rural New England for an audience still troubled by memories of the Civil War. Neither the subject of each work, nor their respective media, nor even their intended audiences, bear much in common.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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1. The dating of The Morning Bell has migrated in recent years from 1866 to the early 1870s. In 1937, Lloyd Goodrich spoke with Bertrand H. Wentworth, whose wife had inherited the painting from her father, Albert Warren Kelsey, who in turn had been a close friend of Homer's. According to family lore, Kelsey, who had shared a studio in Paris with Homer in 1867, paid Homer's passage back to America. Homer in return gave the painting to Kelsey as a gift. Kelsey's sister, Kate Kelsey, identified the central figure as Miss Lizzie Grant of Belmont, Massachusetts, and located the exact site of The Morning Bell in Waverley, then a part of Belmont. Though Kate Kelsey was ninety-one at the time of her comments, she possessed a “clear mind and a good memory,” according to Wentworth.

Subsequent evidence has shifted the date to 1872, a date first accepted by Hendricks, Gordon in The Life and Work of Winslow Homer (New York: Harry Abrams, 1979), p. 90Google Scholar. Goodrich himself later revised his estimation to the early 1870s, basing his decision on several facts: (1) Homer's exhibition of a painting titled The Mill in the National Academy of Design Forty-seventh Annual Exhibition of 1872, a painting that has never been positively identified but which most likely is The Morning Bell; (2) the existence of a small oil, The Fisherman's Wife, signed and dated 1873, that copies elements from The Morning Bell almost exactly; (3) the appearance of a wood engraving titled The Morning Bell in Harper's Weekly, 12 13, 1873Google Scholar; and stylistic features that link the painting to other oils of the early 1870s. I believe that The Morning Bell is indeed the same painting originally exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1872 (to rather poor reviews, I should add) as The Mill, and I assume that dating for this essay. For a review of the above materials, see the Winslow Homer file, Yale University Art Gallery.

2. James, William, “Sentiment of Rationality,” in Essays in Pragmatism, ed. with an introduction by Castell, Alburey (New York: Hafner, 1968), p. 4.Google Scholar

3. James, , “Sentiment of Rationality,” p. 18.Google Scholar

4. Taylor, Frederick Winslow, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911; rpt. New York: Norton, 1967)Google Scholar. For an important discussion of the role of the “body-machine” in late-19th-Century, see Seltzer, Mark, “Statistical Persons,” Diacritics 17 (Fall 1987): 8298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5. Haber, Samuel, Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era 1890–1920 (1964; rept. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. x.Google Scholar

6. Taylor, , Scientific Management, p. 72.Google Scholar

7. Rodgers, Daniel T., The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850–1920 (1974; rept. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 56.Google Scholar

8. Rodgers, , Work Ethic, p. 56.Google Scholar

9. James is linked loosely to Taylor and bureaucratic culture by Wiebe, Robert H., The Search for Order 1877–1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), p. 151Google Scholar. James has been cast most recently as an inheritor of an Emersonian legacy, countering bureaucratization and professionalization by reheroicizing work, in West, Cornel's provocative The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Geneaology of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 5468CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Kuklik, Bruce, The Rise of American Philosophy, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860–1930 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)Google Scholar; and Bjork, Daniel W., William James: The Center of His Vision (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988CrossRefGoogle Scholar). There is an irony worth noting in all this. In the early years of the 20th Century, James was appropriated by the efficiency crowd as a prophet of scientific management, a St. John the Baptist to their Christ-like Taylor (see Haber, , Efficiency and Uplift, pp. 5758)Google Scholar. I am indebted to Elizabeth Abrams for calling my attention to this twist in James's reputation.

10. West, (American Evasion, p. 61)Google Scholar notes James's “distrust of the masses” and his social anxieties about classes below him.

11. I am indebted and grateful to Jules Prown, with whom I team-taught a seminar on American Romanticism and Realism, for many lively discussions about The Morning Bell. I also wish to thank my students for their spirited comments about the painting. I owe a special note of gratitude to Helen Cooper, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, and to the helpful staff of the American art collections at the Yale University Art Gallery.

12. Major studies of Homer include Goodrich, Lloyd, Winslow Homer (New York: Macmillan for Whitney Museum of Art, 1944)Google Scholar; Wilmerding, John, Winslow Homer (New York: Praeger, 1972)Google Scholar; Hendricks, , Life and Work of Winslow HomerGoogle Scholar; Cooper, Helen A., Winslow Homer Watercolors (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1986)Google Scholar; and most recently, in passing, Burns, Sarah, Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989)Google Scholar. Burns's study is particularly fine in its discussions of Homer's relation to the rural mythologies and mass creeds of postbellum society.

13. Beams, Philip C., Winslow Homer's Magazine Engravings (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).Google Scholar

14. Wilson, Christopher Kent, “Winslow Homer's The Veteran in a New Field: A Study of the Harvest Metaphor and Popular Culture,” American Art Journal 17 (Autumn 1985): 327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15. Burns, , Pastoral Inventions, p. 245.Google Scholar

16. This sort of sentimental pun appears frequently in illustrations of the period. An engraving in Arthur's Lady's Home Magazine (37 [1871]: 357Google Scholar), for example, shows a grandfatherly man with a cherubically attired young child on his lap. The man holds a pocketwatch to the ear of the child while gesturing in explanation. Both smile. The illustration is captioned, “The Happiest Time.”

17. Kessler-Harris, Alice, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 63Google Scholar. For an extremely fine review essay on the question of gender and labor in the 19th Century, see Baron, Ava, “Gender and Labor History: Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future,” in Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor, ed. Baron, Ava (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 146Google Scholar. See also Blewett, Mary H., Men, Women and Work: Class, Gender, and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780–1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Prude, Jonathan, “Town-Factory Conflicts in Antebellum Rural Massachusetts,” in The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation: Essays in the Social History of Rural America, ed. Hahn, Steven and Prude, Jonathan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), pp. 71102Google Scholar; and Gutman, Herbert G. and Bell, Donald H., eds. The New England Working Class and the New Labor History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987)Google Scholar. This latter text reproduces Homer's wood engraving New England Factory Life-Bell Time' from Harper's Weekly, 07 25, 1868Google Scholar, as a frontispiece.

18. “Woman's Work and Woman's Wages,” Arthur's Lady's Home Magazine 35 (1870): 91Google Scholar. The series on “Woman's Work” ran in five installments throughout the year. It was written “By An American Woman.”

19. Kessler-Harris, , Out to Work, p. 72.Google Scholar

20. Dublin, Thomas, Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), pp. 103–4.Google Scholar

21. Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985), pp. 5376.Google Scholar

22. Note for instance the way the central figure is linked to the women on the right by both the lines of the bridge and of the sluice gate. The painting works to charge the space between the central woman and the others with an extraordinary tension, a tension that makes no sense unless we understand the covert and specular relation between the central figure and the “chorus” at the base of the bridge.

23. Spacks, Patricia Meyer, Gossip (New York: Knopf, 1985).Google Scholar

24. Burns, , (Pastoral Inventions, p. 80)Google Scholar discusses the equation between architectural modesty and rural simplicity.

25. For an excellent account of the construction of New England as a “cultural landscape,” see Buell, Lawrence, New England Literary Culture: From Revolution Through Renaissance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 283303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26. A spirited literature has evolved around The County Election. See Westervelt, Roger F., “Whig Painter of Missouri,” American Art Journal 2 (Spring 1970): 4653CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Groseclose, Barbara S., “Painting, Politics, and George Caleb Bingham,” American Art Journal 10 (11 1978): 519CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Husch, Gail E., “George Caleb Bingham's The County Election: Whig Tribute to the Will of the People,” American Art Journal 9 (1987): 422CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Casper, Scott, “Politics, Art, and the Contradictions of a Market Culture: George Caleb Bingham's Stump Speaking,” American Art 5 (Summer 1991): 2647.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27. Bingham's souring experience in politics — he was elected to the Missouri legislature but denied his seat because of partisan maneuvering — enters The County Election in the form of the rail on the porch to the right of the voter. The rail functions as a bar, separating the officiating gentlemen on the porch from the people. The rail suggests how fragile the forces of individualism may be when set against partisanship, party politics, and entrenched power. For a full account of Bingham's political life, especially as it relates to The County Election, see Rash, Nancy, The Painting and Politics of George Caleb Bingham (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 120–40.Google Scholar

28. Though the literature on late-19th-Century consumer culture is quite extensive, I have relied on two texts in particular: Agnew, Jean-Christophe's “A House of Fiction: Domestic Interiors and the Commodity Aesthetic,” in Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America 1880–1920, ed. Bronner, Simon J. (New York: Norton, 1989), pp. 133–55Google Scholar; and The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, ed. Fox, Richard Wightman and Lears, T. J. Jackson (New York: Pantheon, 1983).Google Scholar

29. Larcom, Lucy, A New England Girlhood: Outline from Memory, first published in 1889Google Scholar; reprinted with a foreword by Cott, Nancy (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986), pp. 182–83.Google Scholar

30. Harper's Weekly, 12 13, 1873, p. 1114Google Scholar. The Homer illustration appears on page 1116.

31. In addition to Rodgers, , Work EthicGoogle Scholar, and Haber, , Efficiency and UpliftGoogle Scholar, I rely here on the following studies: Braverman, Harry, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review, 1974)Google Scholar; Montgomery, David, Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979)Google Scholar; and Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture & Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).Google Scholar

32. The term “incorporation” is used to characterize Gilded Age society in Trachtenberg, Alan's Incorporation, pp. 310.Google Scholar

33. James, , Essays in Pragmatism, pp. 142, 151152.Google Scholar

34. I am indebted to Zaretsky, Eli, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life (New York: Harper Colophon, 1976), p. 67Google Scholar. Zaretsky focuses on consumption as the answer provided by corporate capitalism to the problems introduced by proletarianization, a tact different from my own. For a more traditional discussion of proletarianization and women's labor, see Tilly, Louise A., “Paths of Proletarianization: Organization of Production, Sexual Division of Labor, and Women's Collective Action,” in Women's Work: Development and the Division of Labor by Gender, ed. Leacock, Eleanor, Safa, Helen I. et al. , (South Hadley, Mass: Bergin and Garvey, 1986), pp. 2540.Google Scholar

35. Bledstein, Burton J., The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: Norton, 1976)Google Scholar. See also Haskell, Thomas L., The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The Social Science Association and the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977).Google Scholar

36. The one exception concerns race, which, like gender, functions for Homer as a locus of alienated labor. For an illuminating discussion of race in Homer, see Wood, Peter H. and Dalton, Karen C. C., Winslow Homer's Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988)Google Scholar. For an account of the romanticization and heroization of the laborer, as male, see Griffin, Randall C., “Thomas Anshutz's The Ironworkers' Noontime: Remythologizing the Industrial Worker,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4 (Summer/Fall 1990): 129–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37. The question of masculinization is addressed historically by Leverenz, David, Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989)Google Scholar; and in a more anthropological vein by Gilmore, David D., Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).Google Scholar

38. Curry, David Park, Winslow Homer: The Croquet Game (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1984)Google Scholar, unpaginated.

39. Homer's relation to Barbizon painting is discussed in Wilmerding, , Winslow Homer, p. 50Google Scholar; Cooper, , Winslow Homer Watercolors, pp. 52, 8283Google Scholar; and Burns, , Pastoral Inventions, pp. 215, 221–22, 226.Google Scholar

40. Beam notes that The Wreck of the ‘Atlantic’ is Homer's only illustration based on the work of another painter (Engravings, p. 23).Google Scholar

41. Prown, Jules D., “Winslow Homer in His Art,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 1 (Spring 1987): 3045CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Wilmerding, , Winslow Homer, 137–38Google Scholar. See also Adams, Henry, “Winslow Homer in His Art,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 7 (Spring 1987): 3045.Google Scholar

42. The permeability of class to metaphors of gender is discussed by Wai-Chee Dimock, “Criminal Law, Female Virtue, and the Rise of Liberalism,” Yale Journal of Law and the HumanitiesGoogle Scholar, forthcoming.

43. For a concise but thoughtful account of Right and Left as part of Homer's hunting oeuvre, see Robertson, Bruce, Reckoning with Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence (Bloomington: Indiana University Press in cooperation with Cleveland Museum of Art, 1990), pp. 3738.Google Scholar

44. For a useful discussion of still life and trompe l'oeil conventions in relation to modernism, see Drucker, Johanna, “Harnett, Haberle, and Peto: Visuality and Artifice among the Proto-Modern Americans,” Art Bulletin 81 (03 1992): 3750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

45. We might speculate in a more psychoanalytic vein that the transgressive energies of the fisherman's gaze in The Wreck of the ‘Atlantic’ have been thematized here in the predatory qualities of the hunter's aim. The puff of smoke, like the red scarf from The Lifeline, carries with it a psychosexual dimension: a gesture, like repression, that denies, effaces, and punishes the transgressive impulse accompanying it.

46. Letter to George Briggs, February 19, 1896. Archives of American Art, Microfilm Roll 3483, frame 40.

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