Commentary: ‘Snap the Whip’

By Louis A. Zona

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In 1872, an extraordinarily talented artist, Winslow Homer, painted his masterpiece of children playing a game called Snap The Whip or Crack The Whip. The painting has become the jewel of 19th century American art and the pride and joy of Youngstown’s own Butler Institute of American Art, which has owned the painting since 1919.

Not long ago a couple from Michigan asked permission to photograph themselves in front of the painting since it was included in a book of things to see before we die.

The painting was acquired by the founder of the museum, Joseph Green Butler Jr., who played crack the whip with his boyhood friend, William McKinley, in Niles, Ohio.

Butler, who lost his good friend President McKinley to an assassin’s bullet, searched for the painting that he had seen years before in Philadelphia at an exposition.

The sentimental value of the work to Mr. Butler was even greater than the large sum of money that the previous owner had asked for the work. Joseph Butler brought the famous work to Youngstown and to his new museum, The Butler Institute of American Art.

Visitors to The Butler always ask why this particular work is considered a masterpiece and what makes it so valuable aesthetically and historically.

There are no easy answers except to say that certain works of art appeal on many levels including viscerally.

Remember the famous response of Justice Potter Stewart when he was asked to define obscenity, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Art specialists, those professionals who devote their lives to studying art, can justifiably respond in the same manner. An art masterpiece presents itself to such scholars with clarity and soundness.

Another way to understand the nature of masterfully created art is to become familiar with the artist’s total body of work. Scholars look for consistency in a select grouping of work before they declare a masterpiece such as Homer’s “Snap the Whip.”

But, know that Homer was indeed
consistent with his seascapes and so many other paintings of the home front during the Civil War. One might say that masters paint masterpieces.

A masterpiece possesses a variety of qualities that can be observed and studied, such as originality, sound organization, and oftentimes a conceptual component that leaps out at us.

In “Snap the Whip,” we easily discover that movement exists in the line of boys that form a triangle with the mountains behind them. The brightest spot in the painting is the deep red one-room schoolhouse, right of center, which is both charming and visually strong, almost serving as a fulcrum balancing the pieces that make up the painting.

Another way to look at this Winslow Homer masterwork is to examine it as a historical document of sorts. The painting was created after the Civil War that had torn our country apart. In “Snap The Whip,” we see the vibrancy of children at play pointing to a new birth, a new vitality in post- war America.

We often receive phone calls at The Butler about the fact that folks who visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City say that “Snap the Whip” is located there.

The reality is that Homer painted two versions of a similar subject. But in the Met’s version we see fewer children at play and no mountains on a somewhat smaller canvas. Some scholars believe that the Met’s “Snap the Whip” was a trial run before he painted the larger version housed in The Butler.

I find it sad that children who come through The Butler on school tours always ask the tour guides (docents) what the children in the painting are doing. Why do they seem to be running while holding hands, they ask.

Of course, the docents need to describe the fact that they are playing a popular game that children played for decades but seemingly, play no more.

Many people reading this have played snap or crack the whip as students on the playground or during recess. The game is based upon centrifugal force as the fellow on the far right spins the line of classmates until physics has its way and kids on the left are tossed into the weeds.

I would guess that few kids play the game these days when computer games and other electronic diversions win their attention.

The role of art in our lives can and should be significant. The art such creative geniuses as Winslow Homer produce is meant to stop us, to hold us, and move us in some way, be it emotionally or conceptually.

Great art can educate us or it can be a source of great enjoyment. It can amuse us. It can remind us of our shared humanity.

Think about the great romantic painter Vincent van Gogh, whose emotionally charged canvases continue to move and inspire us more than a century after they left his studio in Arles, France. He also tells us through his intensely emotional paintings that the greatest works of art in history can be the creation of artists who have suffered through the creative process.

Vincent, who saw himself as a failure was, in fact, one of the greats by any standard of measure.

Winslow Homer’s painting of children playing in front of a red schoolhouse will forever be seen as one of those artistic high water marks in American culture.

Equally significant, it is also a charming painting that tells the story of a Youngstown businessman named Joseph Butler and his friendship with a president.