Born: Boston, MA
“What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous work in the right way.”
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Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1836, Homer was the second of three sons of Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer, both from long lines of New Englanders. His mother was a gifted amateur watercolorist and Homer’s first teacher, and she and her son had a close relationship throughout their lives. Homer took on many of her traits, including her quiet, strong-willed, terse, sociable nature; her dry sense of humor; and her artistic talent. Homer had a happy childhood, growing up mostly in then rural Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an average student, but his art talent was on display early.
Homer’s father was a volatile, restless businessman who was always looking to “make a killing”. When Homer was thirteen, Charles gave up the hardware store business to seek a fortune in the California gold rush. When that failed, Charles left his family and went to Europe to raise capital for other get-rich-quick schemes that didn’t materialize.
After Homer’s high school graduation, his father saw an ad in the newspaper and arranged for an apprenticeship. Homer’s apprenticeship to a Boston commercial lithographer at the age of 19, was a formative but “treadmill experience”. He worked repetitively on sheet music covers and other commercial work for two years. By 1857, his freelance career was underway after he turned down an offer to join the staff of Harper’s Weekly. “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone”, Homer later stated, “I have had no master, and never shall have any.”
Homer’s career as an illustrator lasted nearly twenty years. He contributed to magazines such as Ballou’s Pictorial and Harper’s Weekly, at a time when the market for illustrations was growing rapidly, and when fads and fashions were changing quickly. His early works, mostly commercial engravings of urban and country social scenes, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings – qualities that remained important throughout his career. His quick success was mostly due to this strong understanding of graphic design and also to the adaptability of his designs to wood engraving.
In 1859, he opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, the artistic and publishing capital of the United States. Until 1863 he attended classes at the National Academy of Design, and studied briefly with Frederic Rondel, who taught him the basics of painting. In only about a year of self-training, Homer was producing excellent oil 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 murderous 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 war time, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, however, 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 Home, Sweet Home at the National Academy and its remarkable critical reception resulted in its quick sale and in the artist being elected an Associate Academician, then a full Academician in 1865. After the war, Homer turned his attention primarily to scenes of childhood and young women, reflecting his own, and the country’s, nostaglia for simpler times.
At nearly the beginning of his painting career, the twenty-seven year old Homer demonstrated a maturity of feeling, depth of perception, and mastery of technique which was immediately recognized. His realism was objective, true to nature, and emotionally controlled. One critic wrote, “Winslow Homer is one of those few young artists who make a decided impression of their power with their very first contributions to the Academy…He at this moment wields a better pencil, models better, colors better, than many whom, were it not improper, we could mention as regular contributors to the Academy.” And of Home, Sweet Home specifically, “There is no clap-trap about it. The delicacy and strength of emotion which reign throughout this little picture are not surpassed in the whole exhibition.” “It is a work of real feeling, soldiers in camp listening to the evening band, and thinking of the wives and darlings far away. There is no strained effect in it, no sentimentality, but a hearty, homely actuality, broadly, freely, and simply worked out.”
After exhibiting at the National Academy of Design, Homer finally traveled to Paris, France 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, then 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 America and had already evolved a personal style which was much closer to Manet than Monet. Unfortunately, Homer was very private about his personal life and his methods (even denying his first biographer any personal information or commentary), but his stance was clearly one of independence of style and a devotion to American subjects. As his fellow artist Eugene Benson wrote, Homer believed that artists “should never look at pictures” but should “stutter in a language of their own.”
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). Of his work at this time, Henry James wrote:
“We frankly confess that we detest his subjects…he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial…and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded.”
Many disagreed with James. Breezing Up, Homer’s iconic painting of four boys out for a leisurely sail, received wide praise. The New York Tribune wrote, “There is no picture in this exhibition, nor can we remember when there has been a picture in any exhibition, that can be named alongside this.” Visits to Petersburg, Virginia around 1876 resulted in paintings of rural African American life. The same straightforward sensibility which allowed Homer to distill art from these potentially sentimental subjects also yielded the most unaffected views of African American life at the time, as illustrated in Dressing for the Carnival (1877) and A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876). In 1877, Homer exhibited for the first time at the Boston Art Club with the oil painting, An Afternoon Sun, (owned by the Artist). From 1877 through 1909 Homer exhibited often at the Boston Art Club. Works on paper, both drawings and watercolors, were frequently exhibited by Homer beginning in 1882. A most unusual sculpture by the Artist, Hunter with Dog – Northwoods, was exhibited in 1902. By that year Homer had switched his primary Gallery from the Boston based Doll and Richards to the New York City based Knoedler & Co.
Homer became a member of The Tile Club, a group of artists and writers who met frequently to exchange ideas and organize outings for painting, as well as foster the creation of decorative tiles. For a short time, he designed tiles for fireplaces. Homer’s nickname in The Tile Club was “The Obtuse Bard”. Other well known Tilers were painters William Merritt Chase, Arthur Quartley, and the sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens.
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, demonstrating his innate talent for a difficult medium. His impact would be revolutionary. Here, again, the critics were puzzled 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.
As a result of disappointments with women or from some other emotional turmoil, Homer became reclusive in the late 1870’s, no longer enjoying urban social life and living instead in Gloucester. For a while, he even lived in a lighthouse on an island (with the keeper’s family). In re-establishing his love of the sea, Homer found a rich source of themes while closely observing the fishermen, the sea, and the marine weather. After 1880, he rarely featured genteel women at leisure, focusing instead on working women.
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”, now 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 along side their men.
In 1883, Homer moved to Prout’s Neck, Maine (in Scarborough) and lived at his family’s estate in the remodeled carriage house just seventy-five feet from the ocean. During the rest of the mid-1880’s, 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, Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba. Some of these he repeated as etchings.
At fifty years of age, Homer had become a “Yankee Robinson Crusoe, cloistered on his art island” and “a hermit with a brush”. These paintings established Homer, as the New York Evening Post wrote, “in a place by himself as the most original and one of the strongest of American painters.” But despite his critical recognition, Homer’s work never achieved the popularity of traditional Salon pictures or of the flattering portraits by John Singer Sargent. Many of the sea pictures took years to sell and “Undertow” only earned him $400.
In these years, Homer received emotional sustenance primarily from his mother, brother Charles, and sister-in-law Martha (“Mattie”). After his mother’s death, Homer became a “parent” for his aging but domineering father and Mattie became his closest female intimate. 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 Proust’s Neck with the sparkling blue skies of the Caribbean, and the hardy New Englanders with the leisurely Black natives, further expanding his watercolor technique, subject matter, and palette. His tropical stays inspired and refreshed him in much the same way as Paul Gauguin’s trips to Tahiti. A Garden in Nassau (1885) is one of the best examples of these watercolors. Once again, his freshness and originality were praised by critics, but proved too advanced for the traditional art buyers and he “looked in vain for profits.” Homer lived frugally, however, and fortunately, his affluent brother Charles provided financial help when needed.
Additionally, Homer found inspiration in a number of summer trips to the North Woods Club, near the hamlet of Minerva, New York in the Adirondack Mountains. It was on these fishing vacations that he experimented freely with the watercolor medium, producing works of the utmost vigor and subtlety, hymns to solitude, nature, and to outdoor life. Homer doesn’t shrink from the savagery of blood sports nor the struggle for survival. The color effects are boldly and facilely applied. In terms of quality and invention, Homer’s achievements as a watercolorist are unparalleled: “Homer had used his singular vision and manner of painting to create a body of work that has not been matched.”
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 American 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 seascapes absent of human figures, mostly of waves crashing against rocks in varying light. In his last decade, he at times followed the advice he gave 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 Prout’s Neck studio and was interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His painting, Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River, remains unfinished. His Prout’s Neck studio is now owned by the Portland Museum of Art.