Snap-the-Whip, September 20, 1873
Winslow Homer, American, 1836–1910
Wood engraving on newsprint
Block: 13 9/16 × 20 9/16 in. (34.4 × 52.2 cm)
The Mavis P. and Mary Wilson Kelsey Collection of Winslow Homer Graphics

Habits of Mind

  • COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Writing Narratives

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Describe the subject and mood of a work of art.

•  Write a class story about a work of art.

•  Write personal stories describing the meaning of their own works of art.

GRADE LEVEL

4

SUBJECT AREA

Language Arts

HABITS OF MIND

Communicate

Synthesize

Connecting to the Work of Art

Winslow Homer produced a watercolor and an oil painting of Snap the Whip, as well as this print.  In this game, the boys link arms and are pulled in a circle anchored by one child at the right.  Gravity usually forces the children at the end of the line to let go, thus creating the “whip” effect.  Here two children tumble to the ground, the result of being snapped at the end of the whip.

The dynamic composition of Snap the Whip focuses on the curving line of children, framed by the flowers in the foreground and the hills in the distance.  Homer emphasizes the movement of arms and legs.  The placement of the school building helps anchor the composition, and its straight lines serve as a foil to the figures of the children.  In this print, Homer shows his great skill in using both line and tone to suggest realistic figures and setting.

Wood engraving is called a relief process because the print is created by carving away wood, allowing ink to be applied to the raised surfaces of the block.  Like most wood engravings, this one was cut into the end grain of a very hard wood so that the image would stand up well during the printing of thousands of magazine pages. 

Winslow Homer first drew his composition directly onto the surface of a wood block that had been polished and painted white.  The design on the block is the reverse of the printed image, and Homer had to take this into account when planning the composition. Once the picture was drawn, an engraver – not the artist – cut away the white areas, leaving a raised design of lines and shapes.  Ink was applied to the raised areas and the block was run through a printing press. 

Snap the Whip was published in Harper’s Weekly on September 20, 1873.  Early in his career, Homer worked for magazines that served a mass audience by publishing news, commentary, poetry, fiction, and advertisements.  Between 1857 and 1875, Harper’s Weekly published more than half of Homer’s 220 engravings.  The magazine’s wide circulation ensured that Homer’s work became well known throughout the country.

Winslow Homer was one of the most important American artists of the nineteenth century.  Born in Boston, he was apprenticed at age fifteen to a lithographer.  From 1857 to 1875 Homer worked freelance for illustrated magazines.  He recorded Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861 and covered the Civil War.  In the 1870s, Homer turned his attention to painting and watercolors.  He traveled to England and became fascinated with the subject of the sea and sailors.  In 1883 he moved from the city to Prout’s Neck on the Maine coast.  Living an isolated life, he painted the seascapes that are considered his greatest works.

Observations

  • Look at the children in the foreground and the landscape in the background. How are they rendered differently?

  • How does the artist create three-dimensionality in these figures? Look at the fineness of line, the detail and the use of light and shadow.

  • What is the effect of spreading out the children horizontally over the painting?

  • This is a wood engraving, a medium that results in multiple images.  What might be some advantages and disadvantages of having multiple copies of an image?

  • Winslow Homer produced a watercolor and an oil painting of Snap the Whip, as well as this print.  Are all prints of the same plate exactly alike?  What causes changes and variations?

  • What is tonality? How does the artist make this work interesting, despite only using black and white tones?

  • How would you describe the mood of this work? Is it static or dynamic? Why?

Interpretations

  • What do you think the children are doing?

  • In this game, the boys link arms and are pulled in a circle anchored by one child at the right.  Gravity usually forces the children at the end of the line to let go, thus creating the “whip” effect.  Here two children tumble to the ground, the result of being snapped at the end of the whip. How does the artist focus viewers on the movements of the game rather than the children themselves? Notice how the faces of the figures are blurred.

  • How do the active poses of the children contribute to the energy and liveliness of the scene?

  • The dynamic composition of Snap the Whip focuses on the curving line of children, framed by the flowers in the foreground and the hills in the distance.  The artist emphasizes the movement of arms and legs.  The placement of the school building helps anchor the composition, and its straight lines serve as a foil to the figures of the children.  What mood does the artist create with this careful composition?

  • Winslow Homer was one of the most important American artists of the nineteenth century. From 1857 to 1875 Homer worked freelance for illustrated magazines.  He recorded Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861 and covered the Civil War. How do we see his background and experience in this print?

  • The print has a frivolous and carefree mood. How does this correspond with the times in which the work was made? Is this a political work? Can the decision to turn away from politics into something more peaceful and positive also be seen as a form of political work?

  • Snap the Whip was published in Harper’s Weekly on September 20, 1873. Between 1857 and 1875, Harper’s Weekly published more than half of Homer’s 220 engravings.  The magazine’s wide circulation ensured that Homer’s work became well known throughout the country. What do you think about an artist’s work being made available widely? Should artworks have multiples or copies? What means are there in our own time to spread images of an artwork? Are these copies still considered art?

Assessment

•  Have students write narratives based on their own prints.

•  Bind the students’ prints and narrativess together in a book. (see Art Lesson: Measuring for Books)

Subject Matter Connection

A student who is accomplished in language arts needs to feel liberated to express himself or herself freely. Much of literature analysis is a “gray area” open to various interpretations; what matters is that students have the ability to overcome the fear of that ambiguity and the fear of failure so that they can critically evaluate works of literature in depth. Similarly, various literature genres–such as fantasy or science fiction–ask readers to stretch basic beliefs. By analyzing Snap-the-Whip, students can practice analysis where more than one answer could be accurate based on existing prior knowledge regarding this work.


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.