Winslow Homer
Biography of American Realist Genre-Painter, Seascape Artist.

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The Gulf Stream (1899)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

PAINTERS IN AMERICA (1750-present)
For a guide, see: American Art.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

Contents

Homer's Subjects
Youth
Illustrator For Harper's Week
American Civil War Artist
Travels to Europe
Becomes Full-Time Painter
Homer's Sea Paintings
The Life Line
Gulf Stream
The Lookout
Eight Bells
Reputation and Legacy


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Biography

One of America's most famous painters, Homer had a unique talent for portraying nature in a way that convincingly reflected the American pioneering spirit. Self-taught in both watercolour and oil painting, and a master of book illustration although he is best known for his seascape art, typically infused with strong narrative content. He also completed many fine landscapes and genre-paintings.

Homer's Subjects

His art deals with the obscure lives of fishermen, soldiers, sailors, woodsmen, hunters, pioneers - the toilers and the vagabonds and the sufferers of the human race. The "barbaric yawp" of his brush possessed none of the idiom of polite society, none of the daintiness of John Singleton Copley, Blackburn, Smibert, John Singer Sargent or any of the other popular drawing-room painters of America. His was a new voice, racy with the fresh raciness of a new world. Awkward? Unruly? Unkempt? Yes, as awkward and as unruly and as unkempt as a northeaster off the coast of Maine. And as majestic.

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Like the good Lord, Winslow Homer created so many pictures of common folk because he loved the common folk. And understood them. No other artist in America had a better understanding of the human heart in homespun.

Youth

He knew the common people because he was one of them. He came of an old Massachusetts line of hard workers, devout worshipers and plain livers. His father, Charles Savage Homer, was a hardware dealer with a puritanical conscience and a thrifty soul. His mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, was a talented watercolourist and later became her son's first art teacher. She and Homer would have a close relationship throughout their lives.

Winslow, the second of three sons, was born (on February 24, 1836) at 25 Friend Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in the North End labyrinth of Boston. When Winslow was a child of six his family moved to Cambridge. And it was here, in the shadow of Harvard College, that Homer received his first education. There was nothing of the Harvard influence, however, in the training of Homer's mind. His was a homespun character. He liked his games more than his books. Together with his two brothers, he spent many an hour fishing, swimming, boating and romping along the beaches of Cambridgeport. Here he developed an early taste for drawing. Wherever he went he sketched pictures of his surroundings - simple little black-and-white representations of foot races and boat races, of the people at home, the pedestrians on the streets, the workers on the river front, the man with the wheelbarrow, boyhood sports of snap-the-whip and the-beetle-and-the-wedge. From that day until the end of his career Winslow Homer loved to create pictures that told a story. "Art for art's sake" was to him a meaningless phrase. A picture that didn't tell a story was as incongruous as a sentence that didn't contain a subject and a predicate.

Apprentice Lithographer

His father was wise enough to recognize his son's story-telling ability through the medium of the drawing pencil. He took his boy out of school and apprenticed him to Mr Bufford, a Boston lithographer who had advertised for a boy "with a talent for drawing." Homer's duties at Bufford's lithograph shop afforded him the spice of variety. He printed cards. He made pictorial decorations for book covers. He drew title pages for such popular songs as "Katy Darling" and "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad." And finally he was entrusted with the important duty of designing on stone the portraits of the entire Senate of Massachusetts.

But this was not the sort of work he was interested in doing. One afternoon, when Homer was enjoying a half holiday, he went into Dobson's picture gallery. He stopped before a genre (storytelling) painting by Edouard Frere. An art connoisseur looked at him for a while and then walked up to him. "You like good paintings?" he asked.
"Yes sir ... I intend to become a painter myself."
"Really? What particular line of work are you planning to take up?"
"Something like that, sir" - pointing to Frere's picture "only a damned sight better."

His Own Artist Studio

On his 21st birthday in 1857, he left his apprenticeship and rented a Boston studio of his own. He was not a very prepossessing young man - rather short, slight, stolid; hazel eyes, a shock of thick brown hair, a bristling brown mustache and an incipient beard that grew on his chin in patches, like irregular tufts of grass on a rocky ledge. But he possessed a Yankee determination and a Yankee shrewdness. He knew how to work and how to sell his work. Anxious to make a more dignified appearance, as befitted a respectable young artist who was now in business for himself, he made a sketch of the most conceited dandy of the Boston boulevards, a Frenchman by the name of Paunceloup. He caught this man in his characteristic stride - head up, chest thrown out, coat perfectly tailored and perfectly pressed, a living model of the well-groomed young aristocrat. He took this sketch to his tailor and sold it immediately for a new suit of clothes.

Illustrator For Harper's Week

His ability to catch the life of the city in its stride attracted the attention of the editors of Harper's Week. They began to buy his sketches of Boston - a street scene in April, a view of the Boston Common, a family reunion at Thanksgiving, a skating party on Frog Pond, a snowstorm on Tremont Street - sketches that were full of lifelike people and vigorous action, each of them a complete and interesting and dramatic story.

The editors of Harper's were eager to exploit his art, so distinctly superior to that of their other contributors. They suggested that he come to New York, so that they might be able to work more closely together. He acted upon their suggestion and, in the fall of 1859, set out for the newer and richer pastures of Manhattan. (To read about the greatest 20th century illustrator in America, see Norman Rockwell 1894-1978, whose subject paintings were not dissimilar to those of Homer.)

 

Moves to New York

He who travels away from home, observes the Latin poet Horace, changes his sky but not his mind. The mind and the genius of Homer, in spite of his removal to New York, continued to draw its sustenance from the New England soil.

The editors of Harper's Week offered him a regular position on their staff. But he declined the offer because, as he said, he had already tasted freedom and he preferred it to slavery. "The slavery at Bufford's was too fresh in my recollection to let me care to bind myself again. From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and never shall have any."

Art Classes

Instead, he remained a free lance and opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building. In addition, until 1863, he took art classes at the National Academy of Design, and studied briefly under Frédéric Rondel, who taught him the fundamentals of fine art painting. Within 12 months, Homer was producing excellent oil paintings. His mother attempted to raise money to send him to Europe for further training but when the Civil War broke out he went to the front as the artist correspondent of that magazine.

American Civil War Artist

The pictures that he painted during this period were rarely pictures of battle scenes. His job was not to glorify war nor to condemn it, but merely to tell simple, realistic stories about the soldiers. And most of these pictures describe not the death but the life of the soldiers - in their tents, at their meals, around their bivouac fires, playing their games, singing their songs, telling their stories and reading the letters from their families at home. And, somehow, these pictures are more dramatic in their effect than many of the battle scenes of the conventional painters. Homer produced almost all his effects indirectly. His war pictures are striking for what they leave out as for what they include. The sketch entitled Wounded, for example, depicts not the stricken soldier but his terrified wife as she reads the telegram. Homer was a master of the dramatic omission.

Homer's War work was dangerous and stressful, but returning to his studio, he would regain his strength and re-focus his creative skills. He produced a series of war-related pictures, based on his drawings, including Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), Home, Sweet Home (1863), and Prisoners from the Front (1866). He showed Home, Sweet Home at the National Academy and its enthusiastic reception from the critics led to his election as an Associate Academician, then a full Academician in 1865.

But it was not the war pictures that were to perpetuate the memory of Winslow Homer. These were merely a series of exercises in drawing and painting. They were to prepare him for his real work which was to come later on.

Travels to Europe

And what was his real work? To this question not even Homer himself as yet knew the answer. When the right moment came he would know. For the present, however, he must keep on practicing, painting, criticizing his work, preparing himself for that solemn moment when he would hear the call. In 1867 he took a trip to Europe - his early acclaimed work Prisoners from the Front, was being exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris at the time. He studied the old masters, but he did not copy them. They were skillful, beautiful, at times sublime, but they did not speak his language. He was a Yankee, a free citizen of a free world, a world that had broken away from the traditions of the past. He didn't study formally during his time in Paris. Instead he produced a dozen or so small landscape paintings, mainly depicting peasant life, demonstrating showing more of an affinity with Jean Francois Millet and the French Barbizon school than with newer talents like Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet. Although impressed with Manet, he explored the rendering of light and colour in a different way from the Impressionists - instead of blurring forms he sought luminosity within a firm construction of clear outline and broad planes of light and dark - as in Long Branch, New Jersey (1869). Meantime he also continued working for Harper's, depicting scenes of Parisian life.

Returns to New York

He returned to New York and tried to depict this beauty in a series of American historical pictures, including those based on drawings he had done during the Civil War, such as The Sharpshooter and Prisoners from the front. When he finished these he said once more, "Well done, but it is not quite the thing that I want to do." He then turned, for his inspiration, to the toilers and the farmers of America, white and black. He painted them in their homes, in their schools, at their seasonal occupations - A Winter Morning, Shoveling Out; Gathering Berries; Market Scene, White Mountain Wagon; The Country Store; New England Factory Life, Crossing the Pasture; The Noon Recess; The Visit (to the emancipated slaves) from the Old Mistress; A Happy Negro Family in Virginia. "These pictures," wrote the editor of Harper's Weekly, "are beautiful poems." But Homer was not yet completely satisfied. He was still looking for that supreme inspiration.

Watercolourist

Like the great American artist Edward Hopper was to do fifty years later, Homer began using watercolours on a regular basis in 1873 during a summer stay in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Except that while Hopper was fascinated by Gloucester's large Victorian houses built by rich sea captains during the 19th century, Homer was entranced by the coast and its seascapes. From the outset, his watercolour technique was fluid and confident, and his paintings proved exceptionally popular, greatly improving his finances in the process. His works varied from the detailed Blackboard (1877), to the more Impressionist-style Schooner at Sunset (1880).

Becomes Full-Time Painter

In 1875 he stopped his work as a commercial illustrator and lithographer, to focus full time on his painting. His 1872 painting Snap the Whip had been very well received, and was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, as was one of his finest and most celebrated paintings Breezing Up (1876).

From 1881 to 1882, Homer spent two years living and painting in Cullercoats - a village on the Northumberland coast of England. These paintings depicted the everyday working lives of ordinary men and women but in a new style - his colour-palette was more constrained; his pictures larger, more ambitious, and more deliberately composed. And by adopting a less sentimental manner, he created works of a more enduring nature. He exhibited his English landscapes in New York, on his return, and critics were impressed with the change in style.

Homer's Sea Paintings

It was after he returned from England that he painted a picture of a different sort - Winter at Sea. He looked at it when he finished it. This was the theme for which he had been searching. This, from now on, was to be his inspiration. Winslow Homer had become the Poet Laureate of the Storm. His job henceforth was to paint the Saga of the Sea.

He left New York and built himself a cottage on the rocky seacoast of Maine. Here, in the little fishermen's village of Prout's Neck, he remained for twenty-six years, from 1884 until his death in 1910. He still travelled - to the Adirondacks, Canada, Bermuda, Florida, and the Caribbean, and everywhere painted the watercolours upon which much of his later fame would be based - but Prout's Neck was his special place.

Located on a rugged promontory that juts steeply into the northern Atlantic, Prout's Neck has a blended fragrance of pungent pine trees and the salty sea. And the solitary wildness of the scene appealed mightily to the solitary genius of Homer. His house was set back, at a safe distance from the ocean. But he built himself another little place, a portable, boxlike shelter, with a window facing the sea. Here, in easterly weather, he would shut himself in like a diver, way down among the cliffs, and paint the fury of the ocean as it broke into mountains of spray over his head.

He loved the sea, in its fury as well as in its calm. For months at a stretch he lived alone, with the sea as his only companion. With this comrade to talk to, to study, to paint, Winslow Homer had become all sufficient to himself. In a little garden which he had laid out behind his cottage he planted all the vegetables that he needed. One summer he even raised a crop of tobacco. He learned how to sweat and dry the leaves, and he went to a factory in Portland where he took lessons in making his own cigars.

The Life Line

He painted the first great picture in his long series of seascapes in 1884. He called it The Life Line. It is the story of a shipwreck, but there is no ship on the canvas. Homer, the master of the dramatic omission, represented the tragedy of the sinking ship by portraying the rescue of one of the passengers being taken off the ship. This rescue brings home to the mind of the spectator not only the terrors of the sea but the ingenuity and the courage of man. Across the upper part of the picture, in the hollow between two mountains of water, a life line stretches from ship to shore. Suspended from the line by means of ropes and pulleys, a life chair is seen swinging toward the land. In the chair sits a sailor, bearing in his stalwart arms the unconscious figure of a girl. Her face is white. Her dress, saturated with salt water and torn by the violence of the sea, clings about her limp form. Her right arm hangs limply toward the waves. The sailor's features - and here we have another of the painter's dramatic touches - is hidden by a scarf which the tempest has whipped around his face. Had Homer painted the sailor's face, he would have created two centers of equal interest. He would have destroyed the unity of the picture. But he knew better. He wanted the spectator to concentrate not so much upon the courage of the rescuer as upon the helplessness of the rescued. Ingenuity? Bravery? Yes. But, over and above it all, the tragic littleness of humanity in the midst of the ragmg sea.

Gulf Stream

This tragic littleness of man appears to an even more poignant degree in Homer's Gulf Stream (1899) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) a picture which he painted while on a visit to the South. A shipwrecked Negro lies stretched out in a sailless and oarless lifeboat, drifting aimlessly over the blue Caribbean waters. The craft is surrounded by a number of sharks who wait, with hungry mouths wide open. In the far distance a merchant ship passes along the horizon. Nobody on board has observed the exhausted sailor, who is too weak even to be aware of this last disappearing hope of rescue. There is but one end to this grim and ghastly story - the sharks.

Homer is not often, however, the painter of pessimism. The Poet Laureate of the Ocean, he presents it in all its moods. And he presents his seamen, "the peasants who plough the waves for their sustenance," in all their moods. He shows them hauling their nets, returning with their day's catch, dancing with their girls on the beach, pulling at the anchor chain with their hearty heave-ho, rowing to their ship at night, while the waves are "kissing the moon," watching the incoming boats with their spyglass from the shore or attending to the everyday heroisms of the sailor in their simple, unheroic way.

Out of these everyday duties of the sailor, unglamorous bits of shipboard routine, Winslow Homer drew his inspiration for two of the most glamorous deep-sea classics of America - The Lookout and Eight Bells.

The Lookout

The Lookout, a night scene on shipboard, was painted in the moonlight and was never retouched by daylight - a feat which not even Whistler had ever dared to attempt. In this picture Homer has captured, as perhaps no other painter has ever succeeded in capturing, the quintessence of the poetry of a night at sea. A starry sky overhead, a furrow of white foam underneath; and in between, the ornamental bell of a ship, a corner of the deck, a couple of ropes and the bearded face and the uplifted hand of a sailor. These are about the only details in the picture. And yet the effect is one of vast spaces, lonely hours, fearless toil. The sailor, who is on the lookout, has just shouted, "All's well!" His mouth is still open, and his hand is just completing the gesture that has accompanied his call. The head of the sailor, with its oilskin hat, its sharp features and its grizzled hair, looks as if it had been modeled out of bronze. The eternal watchman of the sea. "Sleep, my mates! The stars are out, the sea is smooth, the ship is safe. All's well!"

Eight Bells

Equally impressive in its poetic simplicity is Eight Bells (1886). Two bearded sailors, painted at two-thirds length, are standing on the deck of a ship. Both of them wear oilskin hats and heavy reefing jackets. The chief figure, who occupies the center of the picture, stands facing the sea, with his back to the spectator. He holds a telescope in his two hands and he is busy "shooting the sun"-that is, taking the latitude of the ship. His assistant, at the right, is seen in profile. He bends over a chronometer, intent upon taking the ship's longitude. The only part of the vessel that the spectator can see is the upper part of the bulwarks rising from the deck, just behind the assistant's back. The sea is churning with foam. The ship has just outridden a heavy storm. The clouds are still swirling in tattered masses of grim gray vapour, but here and there the sky is trying to break through in little patches of blue. To the sailors, a prosaic detail of everyday routine - the taking of the ship's position at noon. But to the spectator, a thing of magic and awe - the reading of the daily signposts on the unmarked highways of the sea. The unconquerable ocean conquered by the ingenuity and the perseverance of man. This is the secret of the spell cast upon the spectator by Eight Bells - by all the other sea epics of Winslow Homer.

Winters in the Caribbean

During the winters of the mid-1880s, Homer travelled to the warmer locations of Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas, painting a series of watercolors for Century Magazine. In place of the turbulent dark seas of the North Atlantic, he now captured the sparkling sea and sky of the Caribbean, further extending his painting technique and colour-schemes. A Garden in Nassau (1885) is one of his best watercolours from this period.

In 1893, Homer completed one of his most famous "Darwinian" paintings, The Fox Hunt, which shows a flock of starving crows falling on a fox tired out by deep snow. This was Homer’s biggest painting and it was immediately bought by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the first purchase of his works by a major American museum.

Although by the mid-1890s he was firmly established as one of America's great artists, his work never attained the popularity (among art buyers) of mainstream Salon pictures or of the portrait paintings by the likes of John Singer Sargent. Indeed, a good number of Homer's seascapes took years to sell and some major pictures earned him less than $500. It wasn't until the start of the 20th century that he achieved real prosperity.

Homer passed away in 1910 aged 74 in his Prout's Neck studio, which was later acquired by the Portland Museum of Art.

Reputation and Legacy

Unlike his contemporary Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Homer never taught or took pupils, but his unique style of art influenced generations of American painters for its direct and energetic representation of man's struggle with nature. He was particularly revered by another of his contemporaries, the American illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911), as well as by Pyle's student Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1944) and his son Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), as well as the earlier Iowan artist Grant Wood (1892-1942). Homer was also an influence on 20th century schools of realism in America, including American Scene Painting and its midwest branch Regionalism.

Despite his lack of formal art training, he was a master of several media in painting and printmaking, as exemplified in his works: The War for the Union, (1862) a wood-cut engraving (copies in several different museum collections); Eight Bells (1886) oil on canvas (Addison Gallery of American Art); Improve the Present Hour (1889), etching (copies in different museum collections); After the Hurricane, Bahamas (1899), watercolour (Art Institute of Chicago).

Next to Eakins and the expatriate James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Homer is regarded as the greatest American painter of his era. His paintings can be seen in the best art museums across America.

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