Winslow Homer was not only a major force in American art around the year 1900, but an early artistic influence on me and perhaps the strongest. When I began watercolor, I mimicked his early technique, especially as found in “The Blue Boat.” This print was a Christmas gift to me in the form of a jigsaw puzzle! (For quick art study and stimulation, I definitely recommend fine-art puzzles. You learn without actively trying.)
Several of Homer’s career choices excite me. Working people interested him, especially when they struggled with danger to make a living. The best-known illustration of this is “The Gulf Stream.” In others, family members of fishermen are portrayed looking out to sea, seeming to be chilled by the dreaded hazards facing the family’s absent head.
Homer led the art world in his era in painting working-class women and American blacks realistically–or by including them at all really. An artist is often out of touch with popular attitudes but anticipating what may soon emerge: this prophetic tendency is part of makes someone an important artist. His careful observations of the everyday lives of women and black men show him carrying out this quality.
Before Homer, watercolor was not a respected medium in North America: he made this his choice for many of his greatest works–and inspired others in his day and those later to come. Surprising when you realize he only adopted the transparent medium at age 37. [Hey, I was only about ten years late in comparison!] His instant ease with watercolor was obvious from the start.
Finally, like me, in order to create to his satisfaction Homer needed a lot of seclusion and freedom from everyday distractions. This led him to choose less common way of life. He never married but enjoyed numerous close friends, many of them artists. And his black houseman was a close companion throughout his later years.
Coming from a relatively prosperous family, he could settle where he would and do as he would like with an unusual amount of personal freedom for the times.
His early work was as a lithographer, devoted to portraying rural life, childhood activities, and New England landscapes. But his Civil War experience shattered that early idyll. His artistic talent was then employed as a periodical illustrator, eventually serving Harper’s Weekly and covering the northern army’s activities. This vocation would have been the 19th-century equivalent of today’s journalist-photographer, and his illustrations gained him national popularity. The struggle of human beings with superhuman forces–to survive, even to thrive–now appears as a theme in his art and was only intensified in his European studies to come.
Travel in Europe meant for Homer absorbing the novelty of the new impressionist influence. His paintings from this journey show ordinary people at work and leisure as favorite subjects. A trip to the rugged coast of the North Sea, to a small English fishing village called Cullercoats, was a major turning point. “Fisher Girls” and several other paintings with a new look were done there before returning to the U.S.
In fact Homer finally set a studio on a remote area on the coast of Maine, an environment very similar to what he saw and loved in England. As before, his art reflected his love of the outdoors, but added new interest in the changing moods of water and sky. As a change, some of his more colorful and dramatic maritime scenes were done on trips to Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Cuba. He also maintained a home in Washington, DC for a long period, later moving his base to New York City.
Among the artworks best loved by the 21st-century public are his seascapes although naturally Homer moved through different periods in his choice of subjects, styles, media, and theme. For maritime, or marine, art in the U.S. he led the way: transforming what had been an old tradition of folk-art paintings of particular boats by untrained seamen into a genre recognized as fine art.
Born in 1836, jnto a Boston, MA family, Homer died in 1910 in Prouts Neck, ME. He first made a study of art at National Academy of Design in 1859, and already he was contributing his drawings to Harper’s. Washington, DC was his first home. Homer regularly traveled to Quebec and the Adirondacks in summer and to the tropics, Florida, Cuba, Bahamas, in winter.
A recent book on an important chapter of his life little known until now, see: Tony Harrison, Winslow Homer in England (paperback), England: 2004. CLH