Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
IN AMERICA (1750-present)
FAMOUS AMERICAN PAINTERS
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.
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.
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.
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.
For Harper's Week
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The Life Line
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 Homers 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.
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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