ALL SUMMER LONG, STREAMS OF people -- hundreds of thousands if the past is any guide -- will trek to the top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's grand staircase and bear left. There, in the museum's most prestigious galleries, "Winslow Homer" will be on display.
From June 20 through Sept. 22, visitors will see Homer's hallmark seascapes as well as an ample sampling of his Civil War paintings, his scenes of rural America, his picturesque images of seaside and mountain life, his pensive portrayals of women, children and blacks and his final bold works -- some 200 pieces in all -- arrayed on walls painted to match hues of the Homer palette.
No one could be happier to see Homer so comfortably ensconced in such prominent quarters than Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. and Franklin Kelly, curators at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the traveling show originated. The two men organized this blockbuster with one overarching goal: to make the case that Homer is not only America's greatest painter but also one who ranks with 19th-century European masters like Manet and Degas.
Mr. Cikovsky and Mr. Kelly spent five years gathering the evidence, no easy task, given the prodigious productivity of their subject. In his 74-year lifetime, this solitary, taciturn, often gruff and fiercely independent artist completed 1,500 to 2,000 works, including 300 oils, more than 700 watercolors and 600 to 700 drawings. Mr. Cikovsky and Mr. Kelly wanted to see as many of them as possible, up close and in person. They wanted to track down the lesser-known works. And they wanted to secure the best.
Thus began an adventure that was part treasure hunt, part exhausting research project, part diplomatic exercise -- and indeed an art in itself. Though it lacks the celebrity mystique of making a movie, mounting a big art show like this does offer the thrill of the chase and the opportunity to play voyeur in a world whose inhabitants don't want their names in the newspapers. It even includes an occasional dollop of drama.
For Homer, the curators' quest required 22 trips to 60 public and 35 private collections in 20 states and 3 European countries. It took them into the living rooms of powerful and influential people like A. Alfred Taubman, the chairman of Sotheby's; R. Philip Hanes Jr., a scion of the Hanes Hosiery family, and George M. and Linda Kaufman, major collectors of Americana.
It entailed high-speed dashes on snowy roads to reach museums before closing time and slow-motion inspections of hundreds of drawings at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan. And it required the use of countless intermediaries -- art dealers, Sotheby's and Christie's -- to reach owners who insisted on anonymity. Two paintings in particular, "Home Sweet Home," of Civil War soldiers, and "The Rustics," a farm scene, would never have been located and secured but for the help of the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York and of James Maroney, a longtime private New York dealer who now lives in Vermont.
There were moments of mystery, like the time Mr. Cikovsky and Mr. Kelly visited two houses and procured two paintings from the owner of both houses, a person they had never seen or spoken to. There were moments of discovery, like the time they suddenly realized that one painting in Spain and another in Canajoharie, N.Y., were parts of a single work that had been cut in two.
By the time Mr. Cikovsky, 63, and Mr. Kelly, 43, had finished their travels, they had looked at 1,000 works of art. Then they winnowed their wish list to fewer than 250 and embarked on the monumental task of turning owners into lenders. They coaxed, cajoled and horse-traded. Mr. Kelly recalls spending virtually an entire day on the telephone with one owner, who finally caved in.
Only a few big ones got away. "The Country School," owned by the St. Louis Art Museum, and "Sunlight on the Coast," owned by the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, had been promised to a touring exhibition of American art. The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts declined to lend "Coast in Winter," saying it was too fragile to travel.
Mr. Cikovsky and Mr. Kelly also wanted a lesser-known painting called "Girl Reading on a Porch." But its owner would not budge. "She said, 'I'm sorry, I'm elderly and I just don't want to lose it,' " Mr. Kelly recounted. Disappointed, the curators redoubled their efforts to reel in other paintings from that period. They wound up getting "Morning Glories," a beautiful painting that had not been publicly exhibited in decades either.
Judging by the exhibition's showing at the National Gallery and at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the second of its three stops, the crowds have not minded the omissions. More than 600,000 people have seen it. Critics mostly applauded, too. John Updike, writing in The New Republic, called the show "one to make an American proud."
The Compleat American
Even as a youngster growing up in Cambridge, Mass., Winslow Homer wanted to be an artist. In 1857, at age 21, he set up shop as a commercial illustrator and never looked back. He won praise from critics for many of his paintings, and his watercolors in particular sold well. His work took him to many locales, though after 1882 he spent most of his time in Prouts Neck, Me.
After Homer's death in 1910, his reputation came to rest largely on his powerful seascapes and, second, on his luminous watercolors. And though he lived for a time in both France and England, he was appreciated as quintessentially American, strictly a realist who painted exactly what he observed. Since the last big Homer show, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1973, a generation had grown up without seeing an exhibition that encompasses his rich range of work.
In the meantime, Homer scholars like Mr. Cikovsky, who has written several books and articles about the artist, had shown Homer's work to be deeply and unexpectedly symbolic. Scholars noted that though Homer was a realist, his works often offered more than sheer visual pleasure; they contained eloquent messages as well.
Wanting to spread that view beyond the art world's cognoscenti, Mr. Cikovsky, in 1990, proposed a Homer retrospective to J. Carter Brown, who was then the National Gallery's director. It was an easy sell. Mr. Brown liked the premise. Besides, in the museum world as everywhere else, box office matters, and the museum's 1986 show of Homer's watercolors had been very popular.
All in the Timing
Mr. Cikovsky, a terse, silver-haired man with a wry sense of humor, and his genial, more gregarious colleague, Mr. Kelly, established 1993 as their target date. And they set their sights on taking the exhibition to London and Paris in the belief that Homer ought to be better known in Europe too. Reality soon intervened. When their plans collided with schedules and other projects -- no surprise for any ambitious venture that involves so many people and cultural institutions -- both the timetable and the itinerary changed.
Decisions about the locations shifted first. Any comprehensive showing of Homer had to include what the curators considered a dozen make-or-break pictures. "Without them, we would not have done the show," Mr. Cikovsky said. The Metropolitan Museum owns the largest cache of Homer oil paintings, 19 in all, including "The Gulf Stream," which shows a man adrift in a storm, and "The Veteran in a New Field," a commentary on the death toll of war. Both were essential. If the Met, which also owns 17 Homer watercolors, wanted the exhibition, it could not be refused. And it did.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which owns more Homer watercolors than any other institution -- 40 -- as well as 11 oil paintings, also wanted the show. To bolster its claim, the museum played on sentiment: Boston was Homer's birthplace.
That three-city tour, though, would take nearly a year. All hopes of going overseas were dashed, because most owners would not lend a work for longer than that (in fact, a year is too long for many; some paintings could not be secured for all three cities).
The original timetable also slipped. Mr. Cikovsky was busy helping to organize a Whistler exhibition. The Metropolitan had another problem: in 1993-94, many of its American paintings were to go on tour in a show called "American Impressionism and Realism." So, said Mr. Kelly, "the question became, 'When would it be good for the museum to lend its oils?' " The new opening date would be October 1995, in Washington.
Some Basic Detective Work
Together, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Fine Arts provided a third of the paintings that ended up in the exhibition. Nonetheless, a formidable amount of work lay ahead. A catalogue raisonne listing all the works Homer is known to have painted is still in the works, leaving no central authority for the curators to consult.
In mid-1990, Mr. Cikovsky, Mr. Kelly and other National Gallery staff members began establishing a chronology of Homer's life, compiling exhaustive bibliographies, starting files on each work of art and tracing the whereabouts of each. They perused his letters. They looked at the family archives, kept by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine. They contacted Knoedler & Company, the Manhattan gallery that was Homer's last dealer, and other dealers with Homer records. They studied auction catalogues.
Fortunately for the curators, most of Homer's works are in public institutions. For the rest, "it's basic detective work," Mr. Kelly said.
"When we don't know where a painting is, you follow what your mother used to say when you lost something: you look in the last place it was," he said. When auction houses or art dealers were the last known holders, letters went out asking them to relay messages to the current owners.
As Mr. Cikovsky and Mr. Kelly located paintings, they wrote to the owners, telling of their mission. Then, in 1991, Charles Brock, an exhibitions assistant, began arranging for the curators to see the works, designing itineraries to include as many as possible on a single trip. In a four-day swing through Massachusetts and New Hampshire, they stopped at 11 museums and colleges. Two days in Florida included visits to public collections in Palm Beach, Miami and Jacksonville as well as a stop at a private collector's home in Coral Gables.
"We traveled intensely for two years," Mr. Cikovsky said. "Then we took a break to see what we had. Then we traveled again."
On their second round, they looked at works they were not sure about. When they first saw an Adirondacks fishing scene called "Waiting for a Bite," for example, it was propped up on a couch, under fluorescent lighting, at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville. "It was disappointing," Mr. Kelly said, "and we gave it up."
But something made them go back later on. This time, the painting was hanging on the wall. The colors seemed brighter, its impact sharper. It made the cut. "It was just a matter of lighting," Mr. Kelly said. "You'd think we'd know better."
Each place they went, they scribbled notes, often on the back of their itineraries or on scraps of paper. They rated each painting: four stars for the best works, three for lesser works, and so on. Where they could, they brought back photographs.
What to Take, What to Leave
Some choices were easy. The curators discarded any painting that didn't merit at least three stars. On the other end of the spectrum were pictures they counted on to form the core of the exhibition -- paintings like "Snap the Whip," which shows a group of exuberant boys playing, and "Undertow," a dramatic coastal rescue scene.
To demonstrate that Homer was far more than a realist, that he reworked certain themes and painted in series, the curators wanted to present some paintings in clusters. So they set out to get all three versions of a famous croquet scene, for example, and both versions of "Snap the Whip."
To compose the rest of the show, they relied on their notes and their photos. "Frequently, we'd lay everything on a table and start making choices," Mr. Kelly said. At the very end, they carried some 500 photos to the National Gallery's amphitheater and laid them out in rows. "Then, we sat down and scratched our heads," Mr. Cikovsky said. "It's awfully difficult for curators to give things up."
Instead, they did what anyone in that situation would do: they appealed to the museum's design department for more space. Absolutely no, came the reply. Finally they made choices. "We only fought about one painting," Mr. Kelly said, refusing to say which one. "Nick wanted it. I didn't. In the end, the owners wouldn't lend it."
'Make or Break' Paintings
As is typical in the assembling of a major exhibition, some institutions that agreed to lend works drove hard bargains. This was the case with "Fox Hunt," which depicts a confrontation between a fox and two crows. Mr. Cikovsky called it "an absolutely make-or-break painting." The owner, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, agreed to a loan after procuring Whistler's "White Girl" from the National Gallery and Sargent's "Madame X" from the Metropolitan for a special show of its own.
But the academy would not let the work travel to Boston because the museum there did not volunteer a substitute. When the museum appealed directly to the academy's president, Gresham Riley, it was refused again. "So we appealed again," said Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., the curator of American art in Boston, "and we got a trustee of the academy to call him" suggesting that the academy might have trouble borrowing from the Museum of Fine Arts in the future. This time, Mr. Stebbins also offered an exchange. "He agreed, and we gave him a list with choices that the academy might want to borrow," Mr. Stebbins said. It chose a Cassatt and a Sargent.
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, a small but distinguished museum in Williamstown, Mass., also wanted an exchange, and with good reason. Other than the three host museums, the Clark is the largest single lender to the exhibition, providing five paintings -- including such key works as "Undertow," "Bridle Path" and "The Two Guides" -- six watercolors, and several drawings and etchings. It could not afford to lose so many treasures, especially during its high season, summer. To reward the Clark's generosity, the three host institutions agreed to lend several Sargent paintings for an exhibition there next year.
These deals underscored how important it is for curators everywhere to develop keen powers of persuasion. But the prestige of an institution like the National Gallery also helps considerably. In one instance, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Cikovsky sought a work entitled "Home Sweet Home" because it marked Homer's professional debut. But they also knew that the painting's owner had, in 1988, declined to lend the work to an exhibition of Homer's Civil War works organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. So Mr. Kelly and Mr. Cikovsky enlisted Stuart Feld, the director of Hirschl & Adler, to help change the owner's mind, just this once. "I told him he owed it to Winslow Homer to do it," Mr. Feld said.
It helps, too, when curators know, or can find out, who's where among the moneyed classes. Nagged by the familiar sound of one owner's name, Ivor Massey, whereabouts unknown, Mr. Kelly mentioned his name to his mother. She remembered that Mr. Massey was well known in Richmond, where she had grown up. Now a Homer beach scene Mr. Massey owned, a work not seen in public since 1973, is in this show (lent by his widow).
These episodes often go down to the wire, particularly when paintings change hands midstream and talks must begin anew. In one cliffhanger, the exhibition catalogue was on the presses when the new owner of "Diamond Shoal," which I.B.M. sold at auction last May for $1,817,500, agreed to a loan. The curators had to enlist Sotheby's to forward a letter to the dealer in Manlius, N.Y., who had bought the painting and then negotiated its appearance on behalf of the purchaser.
The Job Done
Few museumgoers are aware of the enormous amount of work needed to put a show in place. But for curators, the making of the show is the heart of the matter, the intellectual and professional challenge.
It is also something curators could never pull off on their own. Blockbusters usually have seven-figure budgets -- and though the National Gallery will not say exactly how big this one is, saying it never discloses such sums, it confirmed that the show cost upward of $1 million. Every huge show involves hundreds of people, only some of whom are formally acknowledged in an exhibition catalogue. For the Homer show, the list of acknowledgments runs to nearly four solid pages of small type. It includes the people who did research, raised money, handled logistics, registered the works, bought insurance, painted galleries, edited the catalogue, dealt with legal matters, made maquettes, arranged for reframings and completed dozens of other tasks necessary before the first museum trustee, sponsor or critic -- let alone the public -- sets foot in any exhibition.
One day last January, the two curators sat in Mr. Cikovsky's cluttered office and reminisced about the last five years. They recalled the odd times: a stay at a fleabag hotel in Maine, a meal at a "nice Chinese restaurant" in Rochester. And when the exhibition went up, "nothing was hung the way it was originally conceived," Mr. Cikovsky noted with a laugh. Then he sat back and said, "It's exhausting, but it leaves a wonderful sense of accomplishment."
Photos: Winslow Homer's "Morning Glories" (1873) will be on view at theMetropolitan Museum--A work that hasn't been exhibited in decades. (Private Collection/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art) (pg. 1); "Undertow," a 1886 work, was lent by a small museum in exchange for several paintings by John Singer Sargent from the three host institutions of the Homer show. (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute); The curators called Homer's 1893 "Fox Hunt," depicting two crows attacking a fox in the snow, an "absolutely make-or-break painting," and after several tries they persuaded the museum that owns it to lend it to their exhibition. (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts); Franklin Kelly, left, and Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., the National Gallery curators who assembled the show, worked five years tracking down the best of Homer's works. (Bill Wilson/National Gallery of Art) (pg. 39)