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Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836, the second of the three children, all sons, of Henrietta Benson and Charles Savage Homer. His artistic education consisted chiefly of his apprenticeship to the Boston commercial lithographer John H. Bufford, and a few lessons in painting from Frédéric Rondel after that. Following his apprenticeship, Homer worked as a free-lance illustrator for such magazines as Harper's Weekly.
In 1859 he moved to New York City, where he began his career as a painter. He visited the front during the Civil War and his first important paintings were of Civil War subjects. In 1867 he spent a year in France. At Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1873 he began to paint in watercolor. In 1875 he submitted his last drawing to Harper's Weekly, ending his career as an illustrator. He traveled widely in the 1870s in New York State, to Virginia, and Massachusetts, and in 1881 he began a two-year stay in England, living in Cullercoats, near Newcastle.
Returning to America in 1883, he settled at Prouts Neck, Maine, where he would live for the rest of his life. He continued to travel widely, to the Adirondacks, Canada, Bermuda, Florida, and the Caribbean, in all those places painting the watercolors upon which much of his later fame would be based. In 1890 he painted the first of the series of seascapes at Prouts Neck that were the most admired of his late paintings in oil. Homer died in his Prouts Neck studio on September 30, 1910.
From the late 1850s until his death in 1910, Winslow Homer produced a body of work distinguished by its thoughtful expression and its independence from artistic conventions. A man of multiple talents, Homer excelled equally in the arts of illustration, oil painting, and watercolor. Many of his works—depictions of children at play and in school, of farm girls attending to their work, hunters and their prey—have become classic images of nineteenth-century American life. Others speak to
more universal themes such as the primal relationship of man to nature.
Home, Sweet Home
As a freelance reporter sketching the Civil War’s front lines for newspapers and magazines, Winslow Homer developed an incisive candor. His debut as an oil painter occurred in the spring of 1863, with the enthusiastically reviewed exhibition of Home, Sweet Home at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in 1863. Homer drew upon his experience of the war to create his first oil paintings, many of them scenes of camp life that illuminate the physical and psychological plight of ordinary soldiers. He received national acclaim for these early works, both for the strength of his technique and the candor of his subjects.
Two Union infantrymen pause while a military band plays the familiar ballad, reminding them poignantly that their campsite is neither sweet nor home. The title refers to the song frequently played by the Union regimental band, a piece that no doubt inspired homesickness and longing in the infantry men who listened to it.
But the title also refers to the soldiers' present "home," shown with all of its domestic details—a small pot on a smoky fire, hard biscuits on a tin plate—that Homer, who did the cooking and washing when he was on the front, knew intimately, and that, with surely intended irony, was far from "sweet."
Veteran in New Field
Painted through the summer and fall of 1865, not long after the nation came to grips with Robert E. Lee's surrender and mourned President Lincoln's assassination—both of which occurred during the second week of April—Homer's canvas shows an emblematic farmer who is a Union veteran, as is signified by his discarded jacket and canteen at the lower right. The painting seems to blend several related narratives. Most soldiers had been farmers before the Civil War. This man, who has returned to his field, holds an old-fashioned scythe that evokes the Grim Reaper, recalls the war's harvest of death, and expresses grief upon Lincoln's murder. The redemptive feature is the bountiful wheat—a Northern crop—which could connote the Union's victory. With its dual references to death and life, Homer's iconic composition offers a powerful meditation on America's sacrifices and its potential for recovery.
Prisoners from the Front
In 1866, one year after the war ended and four years after he reputedly began to paint in oil, Homer completed this picture, a work that established his reputation. It represents an actual scene from the war in which a Union officer, Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow (1834–1896), captured several Confederate officers on June 21, 1864. The background depicts the battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia. Infrared photography and numerous studies indicate that the painting underwent many changes in the course of completion.
Shown at the National Academy of Design in 1866, it created a sensation and was hailed as the most powerful and convincing painting to have come out of the Civil War; it was singled out for praise at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867.
Croquet Scene, AIC
Following his highly charged years as a battlefield correspondent during the Civil War and his trip to France in 1866-67, Homer turned to less emotionally demanding subject matter and began to devote himself to representations of his countrymen at leisure. In oil paintings, watercolors, and wood engravings, he portrayed these aspects of contemporary American existence with acute observational and technical skills, rarely exaggerating or sentimentalizing his subjects. Croquet was introduced to America at mid-century from Ireland and England. Homer recorded people enjoying the game as a leisure pastime in a series of paintings. Despite the attention given to the players’ clothing, in the bright sunlight the forms of the four figures seem to flatten out against the lawn and trees behind them. Indeed, the contrast of the dense, dark foliage and the bright hues of the women’s fashionable dresses throw the figures into high relief. As the woman in red prepares to place her foot upon the croquet ball (and then presumably knock away her opponent’s ball), the male figure in the center leans down to adjust the placement of the ball. This gesture could be a chivalrous effort to help the woman maintain her modest pose, or an attempt to view the woman’s ankle. In this way, Croquet Scene embodies Homer’s consummate ability to capture both visual and societal details.
The long shadows extending to the left indicate that the game is being played in the afternoon, the preferred time of day for croquet matches. Homer’s attention to these technical and social details reveals his sensitivity to the nuances of the game. The artist also included visual rhymes in the painting: the two women at the right wear straw hats with blue ribbons that echo the stripes of the croquet balls, as does the man’s straw boater and the bottom of the blue dress, which is ringed with blue, red, and black stripes. The diagonal from left to right formed by the figures provides the only sense of depth. The dark, dense foliage of this painting also intensifies the colorful brilliance of the women’s dresses. The red dress in particular stands out against the greens of the grass and trees. The popularity of croquet was undermined in the 1870s by accusations that the opportunities the game provided the sexes to intermingle and women to display athletic prowess would encourage immoral behavior. The potential titillation afforded by viewing the foot and ankle of the woman in red as she prepares to execute her croquet stroke is alluded to by the subservient position and intense gaze of the kneeling male figure. Painted at the peak of the game’s popularity, Croquet Scene both celebrates this pastime and hints at its controversial implications.
With Monet, Women in a Garden
There is no explicit narrative, and the outcome of the game is irrelevant. Homer’s close recording of contemporary life reveals a modern sensitivity to form as well as content. But unlike the French Impressionists, Homer was not interested in representing atmospheric disintegration of form. Rather, his work distinguishes itself by its very solidity. Here for example the bright primary colors of the women’s dresses contrast with a background of subtle shades of green, and the afternoon sun plays upon—but does not erode or dissolve—their strong, simple shapes.
Snap the Whip
Homer also turned to scenes of schoolchildren, occasionally showing them in the classroom but more often picturing their summertime amusements and daydreams, or, as here, their favorite recess games. Snap the Whip is a rough, high-spirited game in which children hold hands in a line and run in a circle anchored by the biggest of their number, until their gathering speed snaps the ones on the far end away from the spiral and, caps flying, they tumble to the ground.
Snap the Whip was evidently a picture that meant a lot to Homer, for he consented to have it represent his achievements at the Centennial in Philadelphia and again in 1878 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
With Gross Clinic
Snap the Whip suited the national mood of nostalgia after the Civil War well. It presented an antidote to the clattering machinery and brash implements of progress on display at the 1876 Exposition, providing a vision of America as she preferred to see herself; innocent, sheltered, and rooted in nature and the land.
Ohio with MET
Homer’s spontaneous image was carefully developed. As the design evolved, the picture’s story became more lively, and the setting took on a more important role. In the final version, Homer established a sequence of little boys in pairs. Each pair is defined by parallel movements and gestures, generating a regular rhythm beneath their aggressive play, while the physical tension of the game is concentrated in the outstretched arms of the white-shirted, coatless boy. At the far left, Homer shows adults waving at the boys and little girls with hoops, as though to include the entire village in the carefree, idyllic scene. Homer has also added a series of gently rounded hills in back of the modest red schoolhouse. These hills form a protective screen behind the frieze-like line of boys, enclosing the space and sheltering the villagers.
Children embodied innocence and the promise of America's future and were depicted by many artists and writers during the 1870s. Here Homer reminisces about rural simplicity and reflects on the challenges of the complex post–Civil War world. Released from the confines of a one-room schoolhouse, exuberant boys engage in a spirited game. As the population shifted to cities and the little red schoolhouse faded from memory, this image would have evoked nostalgia for the nation's agrarian past. The boys' bare feet signal childhood's freedom but their suspenders are associated with manhood's responsibilities. Their game, which requires teamwork, strength, and calculation, may allude to the reunited nation. Observed from right to left, Homer's boys hang on to one another, strain to stay connected, run in perfect harmony, and fall away, enacting all the possible scenarios for men after the Civil War.
Basket of Clams
Having visited a landmark exhibition of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors in New York, Homer spent summer 1873 experimenting with watercolors in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on Cape Ann, north of Boston. In a series of small sheets, he depicted boys and girls engaged in play or modest tasks. These images of childhood pastimes echo his oils of the period, including Snap the Whip.
One of the most delightful products of that summer of experimentation is A Basket of Clams. The artist sums up the modest responsibilities of childhood in this engaging image of two boys carrying a large basket of clams along a shell-strewn beach. The background buildings and the cropped two-masted sailboat refer to Gloucester's maritime activity. This charming sheet typifies the direct observation, vigorous design, and dazzling light of Homer's first watercolors. Reminders of his experience as an illustrator are evident in his sense of pattern, use of sharp outlines and flat washes, and attention to detail.
Homer shared an interest in children with many American artists of the 1870s. Their paintings responded to the spirit of the postbellum era, when the desire for national healing and the challenges of urban and industrial growth made children symbols of a simpler and more innocent time and of America's hope for the future.
Boys in a Dory with Boys and Kitten
Reflecting the innocent, idyllic nature of his subjects, Homer's Gloucester watercolors are simple and direct. Featuring washes of color carefully applied within pale pencil outlines and much opaque pigment, they also demonstrate his cautious approach to the new medium. This delightful sheet reveals Homer's ability to capture scintillating effects of bright sunlight, rippling water, and luminous atmosphere—effects that predict the brilliance of the watercolors he made later during his travels to the Adirondacks and the tropics.
The Sick Chicken, 1874
By 1873 Homer was at a critical point in his career. Although his ability was recognized, he sold few oils, and he derived little sense of achievement from his work as an illustrator, describing it as a form of bondage. Responding perhaps to the growing interest by collectors and critics for watercolors by American artists—undoubtedly stimulated by an immensely successful exhibition of English watercolors shown at the National Academy in 1873—Homer took up the medium. Although he had often used wash drawings in preparation for his wood engravings and lithographs, it was in the summer of 1873, spent at the fishing port of Gloucester, MA, that he explored the medium seriously for the first time.
He exhibited the summer’s work at the American Society of Painters in Watercolors in the spring of 1874 and became a member in 1877. Critics praised his originality, while at the same time severely criticizing him for what they called his crude color and lack of finish. The translucency of watercolor against the white paper made an immediate difference in his color, which attained a new clarity and luminosity. Thereafter, watercolor became an increasingly important part of his artistic expression. It became the medium in which he experimented with place and subject, and light and color, the results of which he later embodied in oil. In time it was the medium in which he became America’s undisputed master.
Some critics found fault in Homer's early watercolors for their apparent lack of finish and their commonplace subject matter. Yet Homer valued them from the start. He priced The Sick Chicken, a delicate work that demonstrates his early technique of filling in outlined forms with washes of color, at the steep price of one hundred dollars.
The sea, which would dominate Homer’s late work, began to assume a role in his paintings as early as 1873, when he summered at Gloucester, Massachusetts. Here, a catboat bearing the name Gloucester turns toward home in late afternoon, the day’s catch of fish stowed in its cockpit. A brisk breeze raises whitecaps, fills the mainsail, and heels the boat over until its port rail is awash. Counteracting the wind, a fisherman and three boys throw their weight to the starboard side. On the horizon, a gull circles over a two-masted schooner.
The apparent spontaneity bears out Homer’s statement, “I try to paint truthfully what I see, and make no calculations.” In actual practice, however, Homer did carefully calculate his compositions, including this one. The oil painting, exhibited to popular and critical acclaim in 1876, began with a watercolor study probably done on the spot three years earlier in Gloucester harbor.
Comparison with the initial watercolor and laboratory examination of this final oil reveal many changes in design. Originally, the tiller was guided by the old man instead of a boy. A fourth boy once sat in the place now occupied by the anchor, a symbol of hope. Because in 1876 the United States was celebrating its centennial as a nation, Homer may have made these alterations to suggest the promise of America’s youth.
Inside the Bar with Mending the Nets
In 1881, Homer traveled to England on his second and final trip abroad. For reasons both personal and professional, he sought a place of retreat. After passing briefly through London, he settled in Cullercoats, a village near Tynemouth on the North Sea, remaining there from the spring of 1881 to November 1882. Situated on sandstone cliffs above a small bay, Cullercoats was a fishing community, which, like nearby Tynemouth, attracted artists and photographers in search of the picturesque. Homer soon became sensitive to the strenuous and courageous lives of its inhabitants, particularly the women, whom he depicted hauling and cleaning fish, mending nets, and, most poignantly, standing at the water's edge, awaiting the return of their men. Homer came to admire the hardy men and women who wrested their living from the sea, risking their lives each day. They march through his pictures with their baskets, mend their nets and converse quietly from boat to boat on calm evenings. And day after day, they look anxiously to sea under racing clouds, waiting and watching for a loved one's boat to appear. Homer celebrates the dignity of his Cullercoats subjects, the fragility of their lives and the raw power of the natural world in which they exist—themes he would explore in other settings and by other means again and again.
In Cullercoats, Homer worked almost exclusively in watercolor. On large sheets such as these, he perfected traditional English techniques, laying out compositions with broad, overlapping washes of color. The seriousness of his art increased and his figures became more monumental and strongly modeled.
Both of these watercolors are large and thoroughly worked up. When these watercolors were shown in 1883, observers were especially struck by the powerful figure of the woman in Inside the Bar, who seemed the very embodiment of resolute force. In Mending the Nets, he conveys the idea of skills acquired through generations of families at work. Mending, along with dividing the catch and distributing the fish at market, occupied the fisherwomens’ time for most of the day.
The composition suggests Homer’s familiarity with classical sculpture. The overlapping figures of the women create a compact group in a relatively shallow space, recalling relief sculpture such as the Parthenon friezes that Homer may have seen at the British Museum. The neutral background silhouettes the two figures starkly, emphasizing their strong sculptural quality. In this way, Homer presents these women at their daily tasks as timeless archetypes, imbued with a sober and noble simplicity.
His sojourn in Cullercoats, which occupied Homer for almost two years, greatly broadened his range of expression. Once known as the chronicler of American childhood and farm life, Homer grappled with weightier concerns in England. There he began to consider the precarious place of humans in the natural order. He produced at least 55 watercolors while living on the North Sea and completed another 20 or so based on Cullercoats after his return to the United States in 1882. They were more sophisticated, more finished, more subtle and larger than anything he had attempted before. He spent hours closely observing the light and gauging the weather, made careful preliminary sketches, reworked them in his studio and sometimes finished them outdoors with a model in tow, just as the desired conditions of light, weather and atmosphere fell into place. "I would in a couple of hours, with the thing right before me, secure the truth of the whole impression," he told a friend.
His English stay proved transformative. His figures become more classical, more sculptural; his subjects more heroic; his outlook more epic; his meaning more serious. The work gets physically larger. For the business-minded Homer, bigger pictures meant bigger paychecks: "I will send you some water colors—large size & price," he wrote to a Boston dealer in October 1881, two months before shipping 30 new sheets to him. "You can keep them in a portfolio or have an exhibition as you think best."
The dealer, J. Eastman Chase, quickly arranged a show for February 1882, to good reviews. Homer's new work, the Boston Evening Transcript reported, was "positively exhilarating." More shows and favorable notices followed. "Homer is both the historian and poet of the sea and sea-coast life," said one critic. The influential Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, writing in The Century Magazine, described Homer's Cullercoats watercolors as "not only...the most complete and beautiful things he has yet produced, but among the most interesting [that] American art has yet created."
Much to Homer's delight, the English works sold well in America, where he was soon earning as much as $250 per watercolor, up from the $50 to $75 he had commanded at the start of his career. "You will see," he confided to a friend, "in the future I will live by my watercolors." Homer's prediction proved to be prophetic on two levels: watercolors made him famous in his own time, and they paid the bills, which freed him to lavish months, even years, on monumental oil paintings.
In these grand watercolors Homer had reached a new phase in his art, one in which he asserted a greatly heightened awareness of the possibilities of design, composition, color, and light. But more than that, what most sets them apart is their tendency toward idealization. In them Homer had established an aesthetic stage upon which he could depict heroic figures engaged in dramatic action and, through them, convey serious and profound meaning. He had set out to create works of “High Art,” and from them would come The Life Line, Homer’s pivotal oil of the following year and the other great epics of the sea of the mid-1880s.
When this work was exhibited in 1884, it was hailed “a masterpiece…one of the pictures of the year.” The dramatic rescue from a foundering ship shown here was made possible by a recent innovation in lifesaving technology, the breeches buoy. Secured firmly to ship and shore, the device permitted the transfer of stranded passengers to safety by means of a pulley that was hauled back and forth by crews at either end. Cropped down to its essentials, Homer's composition thrusts us into the midst of the action with massive waves rolling past, drenching the semiconscious woman and her anonymous savior.
Crashing waves, dark threatening skies, and fierce winds surround the two figures in the center. Remnants of a sinking ship are barely visible in the upper left. Only a thin rope supports the weight of the man and woman, who are suspended above the turbulent sea. The woman’s clothing and hair are soaking wet, her head hangs back, and her right arm dangles above the water. She holds onto the rope with her left hand, indicating that she is conscious. Perhaps the figures on the distant cliff on the right wait to help the man and woman as soon as they reach the shore.
One year before he painted The Life Line, American artist Winslow Homer witnessed a demonstration of a lifesaving device like the one shown in this picture. He included details that show how it worked. For example, the slack of rope in the water on the left indicates that the people are being pulled to safety by the lower rope on the right. In addition, notice how only the right half of the upper rope has water droplets along its bottom edge. The left half was wrung dry as the pulley moved from left to right.
Homer left some details of this story a mystery. A red scarf flaps in the wind and hides the man’s face.
Homer was drawn to the starkly beautiful scenery of the peninsula of Prouts Neck, Maine, settling permanently there in 1883. Working in watercolor, he began recording the wild power of the sea in various conditions of light and weather, as in this picture of waves breaking against the rugged shore in a dramatic spray of foam. It is one of Homer's first pure marine pictures, without the addition of figures or narrative. This depiction of the elemental forces of nature is an early indication of the artist's primary pictorial concern in his later years. A friend later recalled Homer's attraction to inclement weather: "[W]hen I knew him he was comparatively indifferent to the ordinary and peaceful aspects of the ocean....But when the lowering clouds gathered above the horizon, and tumultuous waves ran along the rockbound coast and up the shelving, precipitous rocks, his interest became intense."
He was drawn to the Maine coast for its harsh beauty, its dramatic equinoctial storms and its isolation. It was also convenient. His family had bought land and established summer homes there: Homer's parents moved in with his eldest brother, Charles, while middle brother Arthur built his own place nearby. The living arrangements soon became too crowded for Winslow, who commandeered a carriage house from one of the properties, had it moved up the shore and converted it into the plain home and studio that became the center of his world for the rest of his life. One special feature of the house was its covered balcony, "braced so as to hold a complete Sunday school picknick," in Homer's phrase. This piazza, which offered a commanding view of the ocean, became a favorite roost for Homer, who haunted it for hours on end, staring out to sea, observing the incessant war between waves and rocks, the raw material for future work.
His time in Cullercoats had taught Homer not only new ways of seeing but also new ways of living. He discovered that he worked best alone, away from the social demands of an urban environment. He felt a special affinity for the independent farmers and fishermen of Prouts Neck. They were blessedly scarce on the ground, they respected his privacy and, like him, they worked with their hands.
Homer's hardworking habits won the respect of his neighbors at Prouts Neck, who even came to accept his strange ways—his walking backward on the beach squinting at the sky, his pacing the balcony alone at night, his refusal to answer the door, his congenital frankness, his compulsive hoarding. He had six kerosene stoves, and he received a never-ending stream of supplies by mail—cases of fruit, barrels of cider, legs of mutton and, in one memorable shipment, 144 pairs of socks. Portland's best tailor dispatched a new pair of pants to him every month. Even on the wild coast of Maine, he remained something of a dandy, dressing sharp, decorating his lapel with a flower and bounding over the surf-lashed rocks in a tam-o'-shanter, complete with pompom. His constant companion on these excursions was a fat terrier named Sam, who came to look like a white pig as he grew older, gasping in Homer's wake. Homer slowed his pace so that Sam could catch up, which the neighbors noted approvingly.
When he painted outside, Homer made a sign to discourage inquisitive spectators: "Snakes Snakes Mice!" proclaimed the warning, planted on the beach path and aimed primarily at summer residents who lacked the circumspection of year-rounders. He slept with a pistol—this in a place where crime was virtually unknown. "I am a dead shot & should shoot, without asking any questions, if anyone was in my house after 12 at night," he declared. Nobody disturbed him.
Homer seemed to thrive in his solitude. "This is [the] only life in which I am permitted to mind my own business," he told a friend shortly after moving to Prouts Neck. "I suppose I am today the only man in New England who can do it." He elaborated in a letter to his brother Charles: "The sun will not rise, nor set, without my notice, and thanks."
The Fog Warning
This painting, which graphically and powerfully depicts the routine bravery of the fishermen who made their living on the North Atlantic, was painted at Prouts Neck in the fall of 1885.
The work is based on Homer’s own experience. He is believed to have made a trip with a fishing fleet to the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia sometime in 1884, and recorded his observations in a series of sketches, some of which were later used for his oils. For The Fog Warning he hired a local fisherman to pose in a dory beached on a sand dune near his studio; this model enabled him to reproduce accurately the angle of the boat buoyed up by the swelling waves.
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