PORTLAND — Back in 1991, art collectors Peggy and Dr. Harold Osher gave the Portland Museum of Art a near complete collection of the graphic works of Winslow Homer, more than 450 prints both loose and bound in 19th century books and magazines.
Due to the light sensitivity of the paper upon which Homer’s illustrations for such magazines as Harper’s Weekly and Appleton’s Journal are printed, however, only a handful of the engravings have been on view at any one time – 12 weeks on view followed by two years in the dark.
On June 5, in conjunction with the opening of “Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place,” an exhibition marking the centenary of Homer’s death in 1910, the museum is launching an online Homer gallery at portlandmuseum.org that will make 250 of the master’s graphics available digitally.
“The whole effort is about helping people see things they wouldn’t normally be able to see without this tool,” said Dana Baldwin, PMA director of education.
On her own computer, Baldwin demonstrated how all 250 graphic works can be examined up close using Zoomify to zoom in on details; 10 illustrations can be seen in the context of the texts they accompanied, and 20 have pop-up annotations when you click on “hot spots” on the images.
The engraving “The Empty Sleeve at Newport,” for example, depicts a woman driving her amputee husband in a horse and buggy, while the accompanying article explains that women in unprecedented numbers had to learn to drive when their husbands returned from the Civil War maimed for life.
“We really wanted to do more than an online catalog,” Baldwin said, “and really maximize the potential of the Osher collection.”
The $74,000 project was funded by a $30,000 National Endowment for the Arts matching grant, an $8,800 grant from the Maine Humanities Council, and gifts from the Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust, the Simmons Foundation and the Wing-Benjamin Trust.
Portland photographer Bernard Meyers was commissioned to create high-resolution digital images of the 250 selected Homer illustrations, GLB Creative created the website, and project intern Kerry Charles created the searchable online Homer gallery.
Museum preparator Kris Kenow built a 19th century-style desk with a touch-screen computer monitor embedded in it that will allow visitors to “Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place” (June 5 through Sept. 12) to access the graphic works in the gallery.
Chief Curator Thomas Denenberg said the museum chose to focus on 250 of Homer’s magazine illustrations, as opposed to his book and sheet music illustrations, in order to highlight the fact that Homer was a mass media innovator in his day, “the equivalent of being a Web designer today.”
Homer’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly provide a visual record of mid-19th century American life and leisure, from the trauma of the Civil War to the innocence of childhood. The Portland Museum of Art’s cutting-edge online gallery provides a level of access to Homer’s work, albeit in pixels rather than rotogravure ink, never before possible.
Log on June 5 to gain a 21st century look at 19th century art.
Winslow Homer’s “Our Watering-Places – The Empty Sleeve at Newport,” from Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 26, 1865, a wood engraving on woven paper. The gift to the Portland Museum of Art from Peggy and Harold Osher is part of a digitized collection of Homer’s work.