Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

Born in Boston, Winslow Homer grew up in Cambridge and at the age of nineteen began an apprenticeship with the Boston lithography company John Bufford and Sons. In 1857, he left the lithography business and worked as a freelance illustrator for Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion and Harper’s Weekly. Two years later, Homer moved to New York City where he attended evening classes at the National Academy of Design and continued his freelance illustration work, producing the first Civil War subjects for Harper’s Weekly.  By 1863, he began exhibiting regularly at the National Academy and was made a full National Academician two years later. After the Civil War, Homer made a trip to France in 1866, painting and traveling over a period of ten months. Upon his return to New York City, he continued to paint and work as an illustrator, and in 1872, established a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building. 

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In 1873, the American Society of Painters in Water Colors held a major exhibition at the National Academy, featuring hundreds watercolors and drawings by American and British artists. It was well-received and opened the eyes of art critics and connoisseurs alike to the potential of watercolor as a serious medium. Perhaps encouraged by this development, Homer shifted his focus to watercolor painting, a medium he had experimented with, working in washes, while an apprentice in the lithography shop. He found his first subjects in the summer of 1873 in Gloucester, capturing the local children at leisure along the waterfront. In the years immediately following the Civil War, Homer’s portrayal of children evokes a sense of nostalgia for simpler times. With bold color and brushwork, yet still incorporating the linear touches and balance of light and shadow he used as an illustrator, these early compositions were praised for their energy and for the artist’s practice of direct observation, though were sometimes criticized for their unfinished look, a critique he would hear for years to come.

During the rest of the 1870s, Homer made frequent painting trips throughout New England, the Adirondacks and to Mountainville, New York, working in both oil and watercolor.  In 1875, he submitted over thirty watercolors and black and white drawings to the American Society of Painters in Water Colors exhibition and was elected a member one year later. Around this time, he decided to abandon his commercial art career to concentrate fully on his painting as a means of support. Towards the end of the decade, as Impressionism took hold of the art world and both artists and some critics embraced plein air painting, Homer’s distinct style, once described as eccentric and unfinished, received rave reviews in the Society’s 1879 exhibition. Vindicated, he approached more outlets to sell his watercolors and found a receptive audience.  

In July of 1880, Homer returned once again to Gloucester, taking up residence at a lighthouse on Ten Pound Island, and rowing back to the mainland only when he needed supplies or a change in subjects. This reclusive lifestyle was productive; he painted over 100 watercolors and drawings throughout the summer, again focusing on children and boating themes. 

In 1881, Homer sailed to England, spending the next two years painting the hardworking fisherfolk of Cullercoats, near Tynemouth, on the east coast. After his return home, he settled in Prout’s Neck, Maine, the place he would call home for the remainder of his life. Aside from winter vacations to Florida, the Bahamas and Bermuda, and summer trips to the Adirondacks and Quebec during the 1890s, Homer lived a relatively secluded lifestyle in his Maine home, once again choosing subjects concerning man’s interaction with Nature. He continued to exhibit works at the American Water Color Society, the National Academy, and with dealers Knoedler & Co. in New York and Doll & Richards in Boston, and received numerous awards over the years, including the Carnegie Museum’s purchase prize in 1896. During his lifetime, Homer’s work brought critical and financial success, and was purchased by both private collectors and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy and many others. In September 1910, following several years of failing health, Winslow Homer passed away in Prout’s Neck. The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston held simultaneous memorial exhibitions in February 1911.

References: See Who Was Who In American Art (1999).; Helen A Cooper, Winslow Homer Watercolors (National Gallery of Art, 1986).; Lloyd Goodrich, Winslow Homer (Whitney Museum of Art: New York, 1973); William Howe Downes,  The Life and Works of Winslow Homer (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston and New York, 1911).

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