When I was growing up, I was told this was the most famous painting in the Butler. If it was on display, every school tour stopped to see it. If memory serves, we had a print of the painting hanging in our school library. I can’t say it was, or is, my favorite. That honor goes to Robert Vonnoh’s In Flanders Field. Art tastes are an individual thing! But it does remind me of some of the playground games we played…
Snap the Whip was painted in 1872. It captures a rural scene in post-Civil War America. It is recess from a one-room school house. You can see the teachers (playground monitors!) standing in the distance. The nine boys are barefoot with a variety of hats, suspenders and jackets, in a grassy field (with a few rocks!) sprinkled with wild flowers. The school and field are nestled in a hilly wooded landscape, thought to be somewhere in upstate New York, perhaps near the Hudson Valley or near Easthampton, on Long Island, both places where Homer spent time.
The painting captures a favorite playground game, Snap the Whip. The lead boy runs back and forth causing the line to weave, and then comes the snap, when the boys in the lead plant their feet and everyone tries to hang on with the “snap” of momentum. Two of the nine boys have let go and are tumbling. Will the rest of the line tear apart as some boys plant their feet and others are still striding?
Executive director and chief curator of the Butler, Louis A. Zona says, “Homer was to painting what Mark Twain was to literature. It shows what life was like in America after the Civil War. Homer has captured the wonders of youth at a special moment in time.” The painting captured for people of the time innocence, simplicity, and play in a peaceful setting after so much turmoil. Even today, it recalls a simpler, agrarian day. I suspect in our risk-conscious, litigious society, Snap the Whip would no longer be permitted (at least when adults are around).
The painting featured as one of the most celebrated works at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition, held in Philadelphia. Joseph G. Butler acquired the painting in 1919, the year the Butler Institute of American Art opened. Butler grew up with William McKinley, with whom he remained friends and about whom he wrote a biography after McKinley’s death. The painting reminded him of their friendship and shared boyhood. There is a second, smaller version of the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The big difference is that Homer has removed the hills, replacing them with blue sky. My personal opinion is this makes it a less interesting painting. What do you think?
Winslow Homer lived between 1836 and 1910. Many people consider Snap the Whip to be the greatest work of one of America’s great artists. He was Norman Rockwell before Norman Rockwell. One of Homer’s lesser works, Lost on the Grand Banks, sold in 1998 for approximately $30 million. It makes one wonder about the worth of the painting in the Butler. Hopefully, it never will be sold–the Butler’s own website describes it as “the heart and soul of the Butler’s collection.” I personally think the Butler is the heart and soul of Youngstown–built and funded to this day out of an industrialist’s fortune. If so, the painting is at the heart of this heart, the soul of this soul. Writing this article and looking at the painting makes me want to sit with the actual work the next time I visit Youngstown. And it reminds me of what a treasure we have in the Butler.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!