ACT Reading Passage 03: The images in the paintings of Winslow Homer
HUMANITIES: This passage is adapted from the article "Winslow Homer: His Melancholy Truth" by John A. Parks (2006 by VNU Business Media).
The images in the paintings of Winslow Homer epitomize a peculiarly American 19th-century world. Through Homer’s eyes, it is a world in which people live in close contact with nature and natural forces, a world where landscape and ocean are viewed not as a paradise but as powers and presences that can be enjoyed and whose threats can sometimes be overcome. And, particularly in his later paintings, it is a world imbued with a stark and melancholy atmosphere.
In 1867, two of Homer’s canvases were chosen to hang at the Great Exposition in Paris. The artist spent 10 months in the city, which later proved to have a profound effect on his art. A large display of Japanese prints was exhibited in the same building as his own paintings, and the process of simplification that it revealed and the wealth of pictorial invention it provided made a deep impression on the artist. The influence of Japanese art on Homer’s painting was immediately apparent upon his return to the United States. The weakness of earlier compositions is replaced by a boldness and lucidity in which simple shapes are massed into powerful designs.
Although Homer’s work of the 1870s gained strength, the artist continued to paint his genre subjects: tourist scenes, schoolchildren, and farm life. It wasn’t until 1881, however, that he found the subject matter that would inspire him most. In that year, for reasons unknown, Homer went to England, where he elected to spend the summer at the town of Tynemouth on the coast of the North Sea. It is possible that he was searching for a town filled with the type of tourists and bathers that made his paintings of the Jersey shore successful back home. But Tynemouth was also a community of fishermen who wrested their livelihood from the dangerous and unpredictable waters of the North Sea. Moreover, the light and weather in that part of the world, so much farther north than Atlantic City, is much gloomier and more dramatic than that of the Jersey coast. It was there that Homer became enthralled by the dramas of the people who make their living from the ocean: the fishermen’s wives staring out to sea as they wait for their men, the launch of the lifeboat to rescue sailors from a foundering ship, the agonizingly fragile fishing boats being tossed on angry waves. Here at last was a subject matter that matched the artist’s deepest feelings. The dynamic and dangerous relationship between human activity and natural forces exposed in this setting would occupy Homer for many years to come. On his return to America he elected to leave New York and relocate to the rural town of Prouts Neck, Maine.
The legend of Winslow Homer is that he left New York civilization to become a recluse on the coast of Maine for the last 25 years of his life. In reality, the property at Prouts Neck — which included a large, rambling hotel building — was purchased by his brother Charles for the whole extended Homer family. The artist also built a studio with an ocean view just yards away from the family house so throughout the summers he could enjoy the company of his father, his brothers and their wives, as well as the year-round guests of the many local people whose friendship he valued. Homer continued to travel frequently, spending parts of the winter in the Caribbean. But the artist always lived alone, and when he was working, which was the large part of most of his days, he could be extremely short-tempered when interrupted.
The sea outside his window now inspired the artist to create what came to be known as his greatest paintings. The Maine coast is extremely rocky and prone to monstrous gales that — at their most powerful — can whip up the waves to 40 or 50 feet. Screaming winds can rip across the breakers, creating long horizontal trails of spray. Homer rendered this sea with all the understanding of a painter who knows to simplify and synthesize. In paintings such as Eastern Point and Cannon Rock the construction of the water has been reorganized into clear graphic shapes and strong directional lines that echo the Japanese printmaking that had such a lasting effect on his work. The rocks in the paintings are massed into powerful, almost flat, designs and the brushing has become energetic, as though feeding from the physical strength of the ocean. These paintings take on an abstract grandeur that has justly made them famous. They remain, however, haunting evocations of the eternal power of the ocean.
21. The main purpose of the passage is to:
- A. describe an artist’s most famous painting and the experience that inspired it.
- B. explore the relationship between the natural world and the fine arts.
- C. provide an overview of an artist’s career and important influences on that artist’s work.
- D. describe the work of artists who epitomized a peculiarly American nineteenth-century world.
22. It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that which of the following scenes would most likely be the subject of a painting created by Homer late in his life?
- F. A family strolling along the boardwalk in Atlantic City
- G. A fishing boat being violently pitched about on a stormy ocean
- H. A farm nestled in the idyllic countryside
- J. A tourist sipping coffee at a Parisian café
23. Based on the passage, the way Homer depicted shapes in his early work and the way he depicted them in his later work is best described as shifting from:
- A. weak to powerful.
- B. sharp to rounded.
- C. dark to light.
- D. uplifting to melancholy.
24. According to the passage, Homer felt fascination for the subjects that inspired him at Tynemouth for a:
- F. short time; Homer soon abandoned them for the genre subjects he’d been painting previously.
- G. short time; Homer found little commercial success painting those subjects.
- H. long time; Homer regularly returned to Tynemouth to paint.
- J. long time; Homer continued to be inspired by what he saw there for years.
25. According to the passage, the paintings that Tynemouth inspired Homer to create mainly featured:
- A. scenes of tourists and sunbathers enjoying the beach.
- B. the interplay between the sea and the lives of fishermen and their families.
- C. the dynamic struggle between farmers and the powerful forces of nature.
- D. the soothing yet dramatic beauty of the North Sea and its rocky shoreline.
26. The passage most strongly suggests that the main turning point in the development of Homer as an artist was his:
- F. discovery of subject matter that profoundly inspired him.
- G. sense of accomplishment at having paintings displayed at the Great Exposition.
- H. decision to spend winters in the Caribbean, where he was inspired by the sea.
- J. rejection of the belief that the world was stark and melancholy.
27. The author characterizes the immediate effect of experiences in Paris upon Homer’s work as:
- A. subtle; Homer continued to paint simple shapes and powerful designs but used more color.
- B. dramatic; Homer’s work became bolder and clearer.
- C. imperceptible; Homer’s work didn’t change until several years later.
- D. significant; Homer abandoned the subjects he’d been painting before his time in Paris.
28. The main idea of the last paragraph is that:
- F. Homer’s paintings of the Maine coast exhibit the culmination of his artistic skills.
- G. Homer’s paintings of the sea evoke the grandeur of the human spirit in the natural world.
- H. the most effective way to depict water in a painting is to use graphic shapes and directional lines.
- J. viewing two of Homer’s famous paintings of the sea had a lasting effect on the author.
29. The author speculates that Homer may have chosen to go to Tynemouth because he:
- A. wanted to return to the place that had originally inspired him to be a painter.
- B. expected to be able to work better without the distractions he struggled with in Paris.
- C. needed a break from the overcrowded Jersey coast.
- D. hoped to find the kinds of subjects he had depicted in some of his earlier popular paintings.
30. The passage states that in Prouts Neck, Homer could be irritable when:
- F. his paintings weren’t selling well.
- G. storms prevented him from painting outdoors.
- H. the sea was too rough to go boating.
- J. he was interrupted while painting.
21. The best answer is C because this passage explores Homer’s development as an artist and the various influences on his work, such as the time he spent in Paris ("the artist spent 10 months in the city, which later proved to have a profound effect on his art" (lines 11-13)) and his time in Tynemouth ("he found the subject matter that would inspire him most" (lines 26-27)).
22. The best answer is G because the passage states that Homer "found the subject matter that would inspire him most" in 1881, when he spent the summer in a coastal town and “became enthralled by the dramas of the people who make their living from the ocean" (see lines 25-44). He then spent the last twenty-five years of his life in Maine, where "the sea outside his window now inspired the artist to create what came to be known as his greatest paintings" (lines 68-70). It is clear that the sea and the people working on the sea most interested Homer later in his life.
23. The best answer is A because lines 20-22 state that after Homer returned from Paris, "the weakness of earlier compositions is replaced by a boldness and lucidity in which simple shapes are massed into powerful designs."
24. The best answer is J because regarding what Homer found in Tynemouth, lines 46-49 state that "the dynamic and dangerous relationship between human activity and natural forces exposed in this setting would occupy Homer for many years to come." This makes clear that Homer would care about this subject for a long time, which can also be seen in the fact he moved to a similar area in Maine when he returned to the United States.
25. The best answer is B because lines 39-46 explain that what "enthralled" Homer in Tynemouth was “the fishermen’s wives staring out to sea as they wait for their men, the launch of the lifeboat to rescue sailors from a foundering ship, the agonizingly fragile fishing boats being tossed on angry waves." Those scenes featuring the interplay between the sea and the lives of fishermen and their families thus became the inspiration for his works.
26. The best answer is F because it’s clear that Homer enjoyed some success before moving to Tynemouth (for example, his work had already been displayed in Paris at the Great Exposition in 1867), but what he found there obviously became the foundation for the rest of his career. "Here at last was a subject matter that matched the artist’s deepest feelings" (lines 44-46). It was this subject matter that most moved him and led to his greatest success.
27. The best answer is B because lines 17-22 state that Homer’s viewing of Japanese art in Paris had an immediate effect on him. When he returned to the United States, the "weakness of earlier compositions [was] replaced by a boldness and lucidity..."
28. The best answer is F because lines 68-70 state that "the sea outside his window now inspired the artist to create what came to be known as his greatest paintings," with the remainder of the final paragraph emphasizing this acme in Homer’s career, which occurred when he was living on the Maine coast.
29. The best answer is D because lines 30-33 state that, regarding Homer’s decision to go to Tynemouth, "It is possible that he was searching for a town filled with the type of tourists and bathers that made his paintings of the Jersey shore successful back home."
30. The best answer is J because lines 66-67 are explicit about what could irk Homer when he was painting: "he could be extremely short-tempered when interrupted."