We are before Mr. Homer’s best picture [in the National Academy Exhibition], the girl on horseback, just at the top of Mount Washington. It is so real, so natural, so effective, so full of light and air . . . so simply, broadly, vigorously drawn and painted. . . . [T]his is the picture of a man who has the seeing eye—an eye which will never suffer him to make pictures that look like ‘sick wall-paper,’ the elaborate expression of mental imbecility and a mania for pre-Raphaelite art. Here is no faded, trite, flavorless figure, as if from English illustrated magazines; but an American girl out-of-doors, by an American artist with American characteristics—a picture by a man who goes direct to his object, sees its large and obvious relations, and works to express them, untroubled by the past and without thinking too curiously of the present.
—Eugene Benson, “The Annual Exhibition of the Academy,” Putnam’s Magazine, June 1870
This painting is unique among many early Homers that celebrate the charm of the American girl, for the crystalline beauty of its lighting, and for a sense of vastness exceptional in Homer’s work. . . . The weight and the easy swing of the girl’s body are completely and delightfully expressed. Given the theme, the picture could hardly be bettered.
—Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., “The Expanding Arena,” Magazine of Art, Nov. 1946
The Bridle Path’s emphasis on the pleasures of the moment are reinforced by its hazy, indistinct background, allover weave of blues and yellows, and play of light on the horse and rider. In this respect, The Bridle Path is lyrical in contrast to the reportorial Mount Washington. If Homer can be said to have brought back anything from France that registered in his work as a painter, it was this new command not only of space, color, and light but also of subject—his newfound trust in the quiet moment with no story to tell.
—David Tatham, “From Paris to the Presidentials: Winslow Homer’s Bridle Path, White Mountains,” The American Art Journal, 1999
Homer visited the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the summer of 1868, where he likely journeyed along the Crawford Path in the Presidential Range—the path for travelers on horseback depicted in The Bridle Path, White Mountains. Unlike American landscape painters of a previous generation, Homer does not focus on the mountains but on tourism and, in particular, on a female tourist on horseback. This subject was novel for American art of the period; Homer’s choice reflects both the growing popularity of tourism with the urban middle class as well as the increasing independence American women experienced following the Civil War. Homer painted The Bridle Path soon after he returned from an eleven-month trip to France in 1866–67, and it displays looser, livelier brushwork and a lighter palette than his work before the European visit. Homer signed this painting “Homer N.A.”—N.A. for National Academician; the National Academy of Design had elected him to full academician status in May 1865.
Homer has isolated one figure and presented her in large scale in the center of the picture. Yet the reason for such weighty compositional treatment remains unclear. Although other riders are visible in the distance, the young woman is detached both physically and mentally from her companions, staring into space. The hazy, muted colors of the atmosphere augment the undefined and ambiguous aura, and the features of the woman’s face are indistinct—her expression blank, unreadable. The Bridle Path does not so much depict an event as it explores the interiority of an individual, suggesting more questions than answers. Why is the woman looking absently into space? What are her thoughts? Is her separation from her traveling companions merely circumstantial? Does it represent a growing isolation in the lives of young American women? Or might it suggest Homer’s own distance from intimate relationships with women?
The painting stayed in the family of its first owners until the mid-1930s, when the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired it. Only after that institution sold it in 1950 was Clark able to purchase it.
—Susannah Maurer, graduate intern for Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History and member of the Class of 2006, Graduate Program in the History of Art co-sponsored by Williams College and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute