Winslow Homer (1836-1910), a pioneer in naturalistic painting of the American scene, was the most versatile American artist of his period, with the widest range of subjects, styles, and mediums.
Of long New England ancestry, Winslow Homer was born in Boston on Feb. 24, 1836. Growing up in nearby Cambridge, he had an active outdoor boyhood that gave him a lifelong love of the country. From youth he was independent, and terse in speech, with a dry Yankee humor. He was almost entirely self-taught. About the age of 19 he was apprenticed to a Boston lithographer, but as soon as he became 21 he launched himself as an illustrator, especially for Harper's Weekly in New York.
Moving to New York in 1859, Homer free-lanced for Harper's, studied briefly at the National Academy of Design, and took a few private lessons in painting. During the Civil War he went to the Virginia front several times for Harper's. His illustrations of the 1860s and 1870s, notable for their realism, strong draftsmanship, and fine design, rank among the best graphic art of their time in America.
But an illustrator's career did not satisfy Homer. In 1862 he produced his first adult paintings. After the war he turned to the subject matter he always preferred, contemporary country life: summer resorts with their fashionable, comely young women; the simpler life of the farm; and the joys of childhood in the country. These early works, combining utter fidelity to the native scene with reserved idyllic poetry, form the most authentic and delightful pictorial record of rural America in the 1860s and 1870s.
From the first, Homer's work was based on direct observation of nature. Disregarding traditional styles, he put down his firsthand visual sensations of outdoor light and color. This fresh vision was combined with an instinctive feeling for decorative values and the sensuous qualities of color, line, and pigment. In these respects his work paralleled early French impressionism, but without any possible influence. Not until he was 30 did he go abroad, in late 1866, for 10 months in France, not studying but painting on his own. This experience had relatively little influence on his art.
In 1873 Homer took up a new medium, watercolor, which proved perfectly suited to his basically graphic style and which soon became as important to him as oil. Probably because of the modest success of his watercolors, after 1875 he gave up illustrating, except occasionally.
A decisive change in Homer's career came in 1881 and 1882, when he spent two seasons in England, near Tynemouth, a fishing port on the stormy North Sea. Working almost entirely in watercolor, he first began to picture the sea and the hardy men and women who made their living on it. These watercolors showed a new seriousness and depth of feeling and a great technical advance in atmospheric quality, deeper color, and rounder modeling.
In 1883 Homer left New York for good and settled in a lonely spot on the Maine coast, Prout's Neck. On the rocky shore he built a studio which was his home for the rest of his life. He lived alone, doing his own cooking and housework; he sometimes remained through the hard Maine winters. Always reticent about personal matters, Homer never divulged his reasons for this withdrawal from civilization. There had been an unhappy love affair some years before, and he had never married. But regardless of this, he had found the subjects that meant most to him. There was no element of defeat in his withdrawal; his letters to his family prove that his way of living was genuinely satisfying. "The life that I have chosen, " he once wrote, "gives me my full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life. The Sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks."
From this time Homer's art changed fundamentally. His themes now were the sea, the forest, the mountains, and the lives of sailors, fishermen, and hunters. His style became sure, powerful, and skilled, and within a few years he had attained full maturity. The first fruits of this growth were a series of marine paintings, including Eight Bells and The Fog Warning, which are pictorial classics of the sea.
The success of his sea paintings led Homer to embark on a new medium, etching. Seven of the eight plates he etched between 1884 and 1889 were based on these paintings and his English watercolors, but with changes that make them among the best designed of any of his works, and among the strongest 19th-century American prints. However, they failed to sell, and he abandoned etching after 1889.
As the years passed at Prout's Neck, Homer's dominant theme became the sea itself. It was the ocean at its stormiest that he loved. His marines take us right into the battlefront between sea and shore, making us feel the weight and movement of the wave, the solidity of the rock, the impact of their collision. In other moods they show us the radiance of dawn or sunset over the water. These marines are supreme expressions of the power, danger, and beauty of the sea.
Homer seldom discussed esthetic matters, and his few recorded statements express a straight naturalistic viewpoint. Although he once said; "When I have selected the thing carefully, I paint it exactly as it appears, " his work itself gives ample evidence to the contrary. He simplified severely, concentrating on the large forms and movements. In his mature works, naturalism and decorative values achieved a synthesis; the balance of masses, the strong linear rhythms, and the robust earthy color harmonies were evidently the product of well-considered design.
Homer's purest artistic achievements, aside from his mature oils, were his later watercolors. Almost every year he and his elder brother Charles, both outdoor men, made camping visits to the northern woods—the Adirondacks and Quebec. Here Homer painted scores of watercolors which captured the unspoiled beauty of the wilderness with a vividness and force new in American painting. Their command of line and color and their unerring rightness of design present interesting parallels with the decorative values of Oriental art.
From the late 1890s Homer spent part of most winters in the Bahamas, Florida, or Bermuda. The West Indies revealed to him a new world of light and color. He romanticized the lives of blacks in the Bahamas in a series of superb watercolors that attained the highest brilliancy in all his work. These late watercolors, whether southern or northern, were the purest expressions of his visual delight in the external world. They contain the essence of his genius—the direct impact of nature on the artist's eye, recorded in all its purity by the hand of a master.
In old age Homer was generally considered the foremost painter living in America, and he received many honors. All his important oils were sold during his lifetime. None of this made any difference in the quantity or quality of his works or in his solitary way of living. He died at Prout's Neck on Sept. 29, 1910.
Homer was the greatest pictorial poet of outdoor life in 19th-century America. In his energy, his wide range, the pristine freshness of his vision, and his simple sensuous vitality, he expressed certain aspects of the American spirit as no preceding artist had.
Further Reading on Winslow Homer
Lloyd Goodrich, Winslow Homer (1944), based on Homer's letters, previously unpublished material, and a record of his works, is the most complete biography and critique. Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, Winslow Homer: American Artist (1961), presents interesting but questionable theories about Homer's relation to French and Japanese art. Philip C. Beam, Winslow Homer at Prout's Neck (1966), includes new, firsthand information on his life in Maine. James Thomas Flexner, The World of Winslow Homer (1966), places him in the context of American art of his period. Special aspects of his art are covered in Lloyd Goodrich, The Graphic Art of Winslow Homer (1968) and Winslow Homer's America (1969), and in Donelson F. Hoopes, Winslow Homer Watercolors (1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Cikovsky, Nicolai, Winslow Homer, New York: Abrams, 1990.
Downes, William Howe, The life and works of Winslow Homer, New York, B. Franklin 1974; New York: Dover Publications, 1989.
Hendricks, Gordon, The life and work of Winslow Homer, New York: H. N. Abrams, 1979.