Today is the birthday (1836) of Winslow Homer, Yankee maritime and landscape artist. Homer grew up in then-rural Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an average student, but his artistic ability was evident in his early years – nurtured by his mother who was a watercolorist. After high school graduation, Homer pursued an apprenticeship with a Boston commercial lithographer, and his career as an illustrator lasted nearly twenty years. He contributed illustrations of Boston life and rural New England life to magazines such as Ballou’s Pictorial and Harper’s Weekly. His early works, mostly commercial wood engravings of urban and country social scenes, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings.
In 1859, Homer opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, and until 1863 he attended classes at the National Academy of Design, studying briefly with Frédéric Rondel, who taught him the basics of painting. In only about a year of self-training, Homer was producing excellent professional level work. His mother tried to raise family funds to send him to Europe for further study but instead Harper’s sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the chaotic ones. His initial sketches were of the camp, commanders, and army of the famous Union officer, major general George B. McClellan, at the banks of the Potomac River in October 1861.
Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer’s expanding skills from illustrator to painter. Like with his urban scenes, Homer also illustrated women during wartime, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, Homer would regain his strength and re-focus his artistic vision. He set to work on a series of war-related paintings based on his sketches, among them Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), Home, Sweet Home (1863), and Prisoners from the Front (1866). He exhibited paintings of these subjects every year at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866. Home, Sweet Home was shown at the National Academy to critical acclaim and quickly sold. Homer was consequently elected an Associate Academician, then a full Academician in 1865. During this time, he also continued to sell his illustrations to periodicals such as Our Young Folks and Frank Leslie’s Chimney Corner.
After the war, Homer turned his attention primarily to scenes of childhood and young women, reflecting nostalgia for simpler times, both his own and the nation as a whole. Homer was also interested in postwar subject matter that conveyed the silent tension between two communities seeking to understand their future. His oil painting A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876) shows an encounter between a group of four freed slaves and their former mistress. The formal equivalence between the standing figures suggests the balance that the nation hoped to find in the difficult years of Reconstruction. Homer composed this painting from sketches he had made while traveling through Virginia.
Before exhibiting at the National Academy of Design, Homer finally traveled to Paris in 1867 where he remained for a year. His most praised early painting, Prisoners from the Front, was on exhibit at the Exposition Universelle in Paris at the same time. He did not study formally but he practiced landscape painting while continuing to work for Harper’s, depicting scenes of Parisian life. Homer painted about a dozen small paintings during the stay. Although he arrived in France at a time of new fashions in art, Homer’s main subject for his paintings was peasant life, showing more of an alignment with the established French Barbizon school and the artist Millet than with newer artists Manet and Courbet. Though his interest in depicting natural light parallels that of the early impressionists, there is no evidence of direct influence as he was already a plein-air painter in the US.
Throughout the 1870s, Homer continued painting mostly rural or idyllic scenes of farm life, children playing, and young adults courting, including Country School (1871) and The Morning Bell (1872). In 1875, Homer quit working as a commercial illustrator and vowed to survive on his paintings and watercolors alone. Despite his excellent critical reputation, his finances continued to remain precarious. His popular 1872 painting Snap-the-Whip was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as was one of his finest and most famous paintings Breezing Up (1876).
Homer started painting with watercolors on a regular basis in 1873 during a summer stay in Gloucester, Massachusetts. From the beginning, his technique was natural, fluid and confident. The critics were negative at first, “A child with an ink bottle could not have done worse.” Another critic said that Homer “made a sudden and desperate plunge into water color painting”. But his watercolors proved popular and enduring, and sold more readily, improving his financial condition considerably. They varied from highly detailed (Blackboard – 1877) to broadly impressionistic (Schooner at Sunset – 1880). Some watercolors were made as preparatory sketches for oil paintings (as for Breezing Up) and some as finished works in themselves. Thereafter, he seldom traveled without paper, brushes, and water-based paints.
Homer spent two years (1881–1882) in the English coastal village of Cullercoats in Northumberland. Many of the paintings at Cullercoats took as their subjects working men and women and their daily heroism, imbued with a solidity and sobriety which was new to Homer’s art, presaging the direction of his future work. He wrote, “The women are the working bees. Stout hardy creatures.” His works from this period are almost exclusively watercolors. His palette became constrained and sober; his paintings larger, more ambitious, and more deliberately conceived and executed. His subjects more universal and less nationalistic, more heroic by virtue of his unsentimental rendering.
Back in the U.S. in November 1882, Homer showed his English watercolors in New York. Critics noticed the change in style at once, “He is a very different Homer from the one we knew in days gone by” [his pictures] “touch a far higher plane … They are works of High Art.” Homer’s women were no longer “dolls who flaunt their millinery” but “sturdy, fearless, fit wives and mothers of men” who are fully capable of enduring the forces and vagaries of nature alongside their men.
In 1883, Homer moved to Prouts Neck, Maine (in Scarborough), and lived at his family’s estate in the remodeled carriage house 75 feet from the ocean. During the rest of the mid-1880s, Homer painted his monumental sea scenes. In Undertow (1886), depicting the dramatic rescue of two female bathers by two male lifeguards, Homer’s figures “have the weight and authority of classical figures.” In Eight Bells (1886), two sailors carefully take their bearings on deck, calmly appraising their position and by extension, their relationship with the sea; they are confident in their seamanship but respectful of the forces before them. Other notable paintings among these dramatic struggle-with-nature images are Banks Fisherman, The Gulf Stream, Rum Cay, Mending the Nets, and Searchlight on Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba. Some of these he repeated as etchings.
In the winters of 1884–5, Homer ventured to warmer locations in Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas and did a series of watercolors as part of a commission for Century Magazine. He replaced the turbulent green storm-tossed sea of Prouts Neck with the sparkling blue skies of the Caribbean and the hardy New Englanders with Black natives, further expanding his watercolor technique, subject matter, and palette. During this trip he painted Children Under a Palm Tree for Lady Blake, the Governor’s wife. His tropical stays inspired and refreshed him in much the same way as Paul Gauguin’s trips to Tahiti. Homer frequently visited Key West, Florida between 1888 and 1903. Some of his best-known works, A Norther, Key West, The Gulf Stream, Taking on Wet Provisions, and Palms in the Storm, are said to have been produced there.
In 1893, Homer painted one of his most famous “Darwinian” works, The Fox Hunt, which depicts a flock of starving crows descending on a fox slowed by deep snow. This was Homer’s largest painting, and it was immediately purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, his first painting in a major US museum collection. In Huntsman and Dogs (1891), a lone, impassive hunter, with his yelping dogs at his side, heads home after a hunt with deer skins slung over his right shoulder. Another late work, The Gulf Stream (1899), shows a black sailor adrift in a damaged boat, surrounded by sharks and an impending maelstrom.
By 1900, Homer finally reached financial stability, as his paintings fetched good prices from museums and he began to receive rents from real estate properties. He also became free of the responsibilities of caring for his father, who had died two years earlier. Homer continued producing excellent watercolors, mostly on trips to Canada and the Caribbean. Other late works include sporting scenes such as Right and Left, as well as seascapes absent of human figures, mostly of waves crashing against rocks in varying light. His late seascapes are especially valued for their dramatic and forceful expression of nature’s powers, and for their beauty and intensity.
In his last decade, he at times followed the advice he had given a student artist in 1907: “Leave rocks for your old age—they’re easy.”
Homer died in 1910 at the age of 74 in his Prouts Neck studio and was interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His painting, Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River, remains unfinished.
I mostly think of Homer as associated with Maine, and when I think of Maine I think first of lobsters. But there is a great deal more to Maine cuisine than lobsters, or even seafood. Mainers are justifiably proud of their baking skills, and whoopie pies are a staple. Here’s a video explaining why these pies are now the Maine state pie (over objections by Pennsylvania):