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Winslow Homer

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Winslow Homer
(Boston, Massachusetts, 1836 - 1910, Prout's Neck, Maine)

Winslow Homer was born in 1836 in Boston. His father, Charles Savage Homer, Sr. was absent for most of his life. A hardware merchant and would-be entrepreneur, Charles, Sr. sold his business and left Boston in 1849 for the California Gold Rush, which proved to be a disaster. Charles, Sr., returned to Boston in 1851, and was gone again in May of 1852 to London to get a California mining lease from powerful landowner, John C. Fremont. Charles, Sr. left his family to manage on their own. It was left to Charles Savage Homer, Jr., Winslow’s older brother, to support the family.

Little is known of Homer’s childhood, save that he spent it “fishing, boating, and [participating in] other rural sports dear to the heart of boyhood.”(1) Homer had two brothers—Charles, Jr., and Arthur Homer, the youngest of the three boys. Charles and Winslow Homer remained close their entire lives, while Arthur later moved to Galveston, Texas and had less contact with the family. Homer’s exposure to the medium of watercolor came at an early age. His mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, was a gifted amateur painter who specialized in flower and bird studies copied from prints and books.

The Homer brothers attended grammar and middle schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later, Homer was apprenticed to John H. Bufford’s lithography shop in Boston, where he learned to use washes and gouache along with graphite, crayon, pen, and burin. Homer began his career as a freelance illustrator in Boston. By 1859, Homer had moved to New York and his illustrations were published by magazines such as "Harper’s Weekly," "Appleton’s Journal," and "Every Saturday." In working for the magazines, Homer learned to use bold contrasts of black and white, crisp outlines, and simplified details—all aspects that would play a later role in his watercolors.

The relationship between Charles and Winslow Homer has often been compared to that of Theo and Vincent van Gogh. Charles supported Homer, and was even said to have been instrumental in Homer's continuing to pursue his painting career. Allegedly, Homer had become frustrated because his early works were not selling. He proclaimed that if nothing sold, he would abandon art forever. Charles, unbeknownst to his brother, bought two paintings and hid them away in his house. Years later when Homer discovered them in a closet, the artist was furious with his brother for tricking him. (2)

Charles was instrumental in linking his brother with potential patrons. He had graduated from the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard and worked as a chemist at Pacific Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Soon after, Charles went to work for Lawson Valentine, a varnish manufacturer, and became close to the Valentine family. The Homers frequently visited the Valentines at their summer house and estate and Homer often painted genre scenes of idyllic rural life while there. Charles’ position as an industrial chemist was beneficial to his brother, particularly in regard to the chemistry of color. Charles gave Homer a copy of Eugene Chevreul’s "De la toi du contraste simultane des coleurs" (1839), which was the most influential nineteenth-century treatise on color. Homer later referred to it as his “Bible.”

Homer initially painted in oil (and continued to do so throughout his career). One of his best known works, "Crossing the Pasture" (1871-72, Amon Carter Museum, oil on canvas) is a loving depiction of two brothers going fishing. Exhibited at the Century Association in 1872 as "Two Boys Going Fishing," the painting shows the pair in the middle of a pasture, backed by green mountains. In the background is a farmhouse and to the left is a herd of cattle. A bull is alert and takes notice of their presence in the pasture. The older boy stands between the younger boy and the bull, and according to art historian Sarah Burns, the painting is “an ideal vision of sibling relations."(3)

In April of 1862, Homer received a pass to go to the front lines of the Civil War, working primarily as an independent artist. Some of Homer’s most stirring images are those he painted of the Civil War from 1862 to 1872. Critics and collectors alike noted that he was the best chronicler of the War. This series of paintings echoes themes of mortality, isolation, and nature’s adversity—themes that would dominate his later works. Hoping to see a battle, the artist witnessed several days of skirmishing as well as the monotonous routine of camp life. "The Bright Side" (1865, San Francisco Museum of Art) is one such painting of the every day routine of the soldier. In this painting, Homer depicted soldiers lounging on the sunny side of their tents. It is a poignant moment, as the viewer knows that any minute may be their last. A more chilling depiction is that of "Sharpshooter" (1862/63, Private Collection), in which the artist painted a Union sharpshooter in the trees. The viewer cannot see who the gun is pointed at, only the soldier and the tree line. Homer’s depiction was accurate as snipers were rampant, particularly in the Virginia swamp areas. Homer later said of the Union sharpshooter:

I looked through one of their [Berdan sharpshooter’s] rifles once when they were in a peach orchard in front of Yorktown in April 1862—…[As] I was not a soldier—but a camp follower & artist, the above impression struck me as being as near murder as anything I ever could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service.(4)

His Civil War works brought Homer critical acclaim, and he exhibited a small group of them at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867. He remained overseas for nearly a year and when he returned, discovered a resurgence in interest in the watercolor medium had occurred.

Homer began to produce watercolors for exhibition and sale nearly twenty years after he became an artist. According to art historian Helen A. Cooper, his delay in adopting the medium reflected contemporary attitudes toward watercolor. Until the late 1860s, the market for watercolor in the United States was limited, as it rarely received the attention of collectors or critics. However, with the founding of the American Watercolor Society in 1866, attitudes began to change. Annual watercolor exhibitions were held and the Society undertook vigorous promotional campaigns to educate the public and the critics. At the same time, printing techniques for reproducing illustrations were becoming more subtle. By the early 1870s, linear style was giving way to more tonal and painterly expression.

In June of 1873, Homer traveled to Glouchester, Massachusetts where his technique in watercolor took a great leap forward. In the previous decade, his watercolors were better described as “colored wash drawings.”(5) The artist’s first works of local children playing have “directness of observation and vigorous, clear design that is characteristic of almost all of Homer’s works.” (6) The artist used gouache and opaque color as highlights—they were easier to control than transparent washes and it also allowed him to build up form in the same manner of oil painting. He was working from dark to light rather than light to dark. Homer’s Glouchester works established his lifelong pattern of concentrating on one theme for a period of time suggested in part by locale.

In the late spring of 1874, Homer traveled with fellow artist Eliphalet Terry to the Adirondacks. Here, Homer began to reduce the illustrative characteristics in his works, and attempted to recall the filtered light of the woods through a more suspended and diaphanous approach. In effect, he was trying to achieve the effect of light through greater transparency.(7) In the spring of 1875, the artist sent twenty-seven watercolors and six black and white drawings to the Watercolor Society. The works were seaside and rural plein air scenes, and brought the artist his first wide exposure as a watercolorist. His paintings were praised for their boldness, vigor and originality, but critics also claimed that the works were inartistically executed and lacked finish. Apparently what troubled many was the common subject matter—they thought it was ugly, but there was something likeable about them. Homer drew continuously during these years, sometimes using a chalk or graphite study as a preparatory sketch for a watercolor. Unlike his contemporaries, Homer began painting on a dry sheet, whereas other artists typically began by washing the sheet with clear water. With Homer’s method, the brush draws the color across only the highest points of the sheet’s surface, leaving ting pinpricks of white in the fine grain that create a sparkling effect.(8)

By 1875, Homer abandoned commercial art altogether. His oil painting technique began to change—his works took on a more finished appearance and were considered to be a marked advance. Critics lauded Homer for his precise handling of the medium. It was at this time that Homer began traveling to various locales—Cullercoats, England, Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba—in between trips to the Adirondacks. Nearly all, no matter the location, reflected Homer’s love for the sea.

Perhaps partly influenced by William H. H. Murray’s best selling book, "Adventures in the Wilderness" (about Murray’s experience in the Adirondacks), Homer first visited the Adirondacks in 1870. The watercolors that he created about the region for the next thirty years concentrated on three subjects: hunting, fishing, and the Adirondack guides. His first painting was "The Trapper, Adirondack Lake," which depicted a single figure in a landscape. A woodsman, while walking on a fallen tree to his canoe, has paused and looks to the right. The viewer is not apprised as to what the man sees. The background of the work opens up to the lake and woods. Here, Homer’s woodsman departs from the stereotype of being subservient to the sportsman, and is an individual in nature, who doesn’t need any association with another human being. He is content being alone in the wilderness. Homer’s Adirondack paintings showed remarkable powers of observation. No longer were they depictions of northern gentility, or epic Civil War tales, but his Adirondack watercolors were a breathtaking dance of composition, color, and light.

When Homer came to the Adirondacks, he often stayed at the North Woods Club, a private hunting and fishing preserve near the township of Minerva. The club was begun as the Adirondack Preserve Association in 1887. Reverend Thomas Baker and his family settled in an abandoned clearing created by a logging crew. They left behind a cookhouse, bunkhouse and stables. With the help of Adirondack guide Rufus Wallace, who was the model for many of Homer’s watercolors—including the Museum’s "Adirondack Woods, Guide and Dog" of 1889—the Baker family cleared more land, planted crops, raised building for livestock, and began taking boarders. It became known as the North Woods Club shortly thereafter.

During the late 1880s and 1890s, Homer depicted scenes of deer hunting and hounds along with a number of works dedicated to fish and fishermen. The artist, becoming an avid angler himself, found a new enthusiasm for a place that had an extraordinary effect on his art. Homer had found new subject matter, new worlds of light, color, and movement. Homer’s first extended stay at the North Woods Club allowed him the pleasure of intensive dedication to painting watercolors in the out-of-doors, something he had not done since 1882.(9) One of his best works from the period is "Adirondack Guide" of 1894 from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In the painting, Homer has depicted Rufus Wallace in a small boat. Wallace has his back to the viewer and holds his oars up out of the water. He turns slightly to his left and looks back over his shoulder. In front of him is the edge of the woods painted in an array of greens, yellows, brown, grays, and touches of red. The colors of the forest are reflected in the water, and it is almost abstract—the woods and water almost engulf Wallace, making him almost indiscernible from the landscape.

Another example of Homer’s fine work from the period was his trout studies. For example, "Jumping Trout" (1889, Brooklyn Museum of Art) shows a trout breaking from the water in an attempt to grab a fisherman’s lure. Or "Trout Breaking (Rise to a Fly)" (1889, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) in which a trout breaks in an effort to catch butterflies that float above him. These pictures were targeted specifically at anglers—in 1890, Homer took out an ad in Forest and Stream that read:

To Fly-fishermen and sportsmen—On exhibition February 5th to 12th a small collection of water colors taken in the North Woods, by Winslow Homer N.A. and treating exclusively of fish and fishing. Reichard & Co., 226 Fifth Ave.(10)

An increasingly private person, Homer moved into the family home in Prout’s Neck, Maine in the mid-1880s. Ten miles south of Portland, Prout’s Neck was initially a vacationing spot for the Homers. However, the artist found its isolation ideal for the privacy he so desperately wanted as he became more famous. He always returned to Prout’s Neck in between painting trips to the Adirondacks, Quebec, Cuba, and the Bahamas.

While Homer was predominantly working in watercolor, he had continued to paint in oil. In fact, his last oils, are among the most remarkable of his entire life. "Kissing the Moon" (1904, Addison Gallery of Art) shows three fishermen in the water. It is unclear if they are in their boat or it they are floating on what remains of their boat as they can only be seen from the shoulders up, and only edges of wood stick out from the water. The men are in between two large waves, and in the background, a large silvery full moon hangs in the sky. Responding to Japanese prints, Homer juxtaposes the immediate foreground with the distant background. The two are linked by the wave’s crest, which just reaches the moon. As art historian John Wilmerding explains, the compression of the distance, the cropping of the figures by the foreground wave, the unusually low, close-in point of view, and the division of the canvas into three horizontal wedges suggest sources in the similar handling of patterns and incongruities in scale in Hosukai. The end result is typical of Homer—in choosing a somewhat mundane subject and by using his imaginative and original combination of composition, light, and color, he has created a work that inexplicably modern.

Letha Clair Robertson

1) Sarah Burns, “To Make You Proud of Your Brother: Fishing and the Fraternal Bond in Winslow Homer’s Art,” in Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 2002): 13.

2) Nearly all of Homer’s biographies examined by the author describe this incident in some form or fashion. Details vary slightly, however, there is no concrete evidence that this occurred and it is not clear where the story originated.

3) Burns, 21.

4) Marc Simpson, Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War, (San Francisco: Beford Arts, Publishers, 1989): 38.

5) Helen A. Cooper, Winslow Homer Watercolors, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986): 20.

6) Ibid.

7) Cooper, 27.

8) Ibid, 34.

9) Patricia Junker, Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler, (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 2003): 34.

10) The ad ran in Forest and Stream 34, no. 5 (February 20, 1890):99, quoted in Junker, 33.

Image credit: Napoleon Sarony (American, born Canada, 1821–1896), Winslow Homer Taken in N.Y., 1880, albumen print on paper, Gift of the Homer Family, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, 1964.69.179.5, Photograph courtesy of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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