Artist Biography

Winslow Homer

(1836 - 1910)

Table of Contents

    Famed American Realist and Landscape Artist

    By Margarita Karasoulas

    With a skillful mastery of the American landscape and a deep devotion to American subjects, Homer’s works established him at the forefront of the realist tradition in the late 19th century. He is best remembered for his peaceful rural scenes, maritime views, and an unmatched command of the watercolor medium.

    I. Biography

    Winslow Homer is celebrated as a preeminent figure in American art, whose iconic works preserve an enduring vision of America in the 19th century. Born in Boston, Homer’s artistic talents were first nurtured by his mother, a talented watercolorist, and through an apprenticeship as a lithographer under the firm Bufford & Sons. In 1859, Homer moved to New York City, where he gained recognition as a freelance illustrator for popular publications including Harper’s Weekly and Ballou’s Pictorial. Homer’s tenure as an illustrator and the growing importance of photography is very clearly reflected in his art. Vivid outlines, simplified forms, and a direct, reportorial tendency figured prominently in his early works.

    Beginning in 1861, Homer was commissioned by the Union Army to document the events of the Civil War. The works he executed during this period (1861-1866) signaled his trademark realist style and a rapid artistic maturation. Homer chose to depict scenes of camp life and soldiers rather than moments of battle, and it was during this time that he began to paint in oils. His famous work Prisoners from the Front (1866; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY) achieved instant success and was exhibited at the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibit that year. Remarkably, Homer received no formal artistic training apart from several drawing classes and interactions with artists Frederick Rondel and Thomas Seir Cummings. After a year-long sojourn to Paris in 1866, Homer returned to New York where he was formally elected a full Academician at the National Academy of Design.

    As reflected in a significant body of works, Homer’s art and travels are inextricably intertwined. During the late 1860s and 70s Homer traveled extensively throughout New England and the Hudson River Valley, trips that provided the impetus for many of his works. He visited, sketched and painted scenes from locales including the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains (New York), the White Mountains (New Hampshire), Gloucester, Massachusetts, Easthampton, NY, and Long Branch, NJ.

    Unlike members of the Hudson River School, whose depictions of the natural world were hyper-realistic and idealized, Homer sought to convey the spontaneity and veracity of nature. In Homer’s landscapes, figures played an increasingly important role. He deliberately chose unpretentious subjects that represented a diverse range of people, melding together class, race and gender.4 Homer’s works during this period were typically charming genre scenes depicting childhood adventures and carefree women in leisure, although not all of his scenes were idyllic. Homer’s depictions of African Americans reveal his underlying views about social inequality and human vulnerability.5

    In 1873, while in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Homer began using watercolor, a medium that he would quickly master. Homer was outspoken about his preference for a “picture composed and painted outdoors.” He said, “I couldn’t copy in a studio a picture made out-doors; I shouldn’t know where the colors came from, nor how to reproduce them. I couldn’t possibly do it”.6 Watercolors were particularly conducive to a freedom of style, experimentation, and a spontaneity that came from direct observation of nature.

    Homer’s artistic style would evolve drastically during his career and the 1880s marked a clear departure from his previous style and subject matter. Unlike the carefree spontaneity and provincial charm of his earlier works, his later works were more monumental, planned, and somber in tone. In 1882, Homer made a second trip to Europe and lived in the remote fishing village of Cullercoats on the North Sea for almost two years. There Homer worked almost exclusively in watercolor and the sea, storms, and shipwrecks became a predominant subject, with a particular focus on women. These maritime scenes were imbued with drama, illustrating themes of danger, heroism, isolation and ambiguity. Upon his return to the United States in 1883, Homer moved permanently from New York City to Prout’s Neck, Maine. Homer continued to explore high drama in the rugged, isolated views of the Maine coastal landscape and created poignant and harrowing portrayals of figures that were often powerless against nature, focusing specifically on men. The Life Line (1884; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA) depicts a rescue scene and is considered one of the most quintessential works of the period.

    In December of 1884, Homer traveled to the Bahamas, where he captured images of sailors and fishermen, native inhabitants, and the exotic surrounding landscape, such as The Gulf Stream (1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY). During the 1890s and 1900s he continued to paint in Prout’s Neck and visited the Adirondacks and other locations in the Caribbean briefly. He simplified his compositions to basic elements and depicted the most primal forces of nature, often abandoning human figures entirely, as seen in a series of works of waves crashing into jagged rock. These powerful and expressive final works stand at the apex of his career.

    Throughout his life, Homer experimented with a variety of media including drawings, wood engravings, oil painting, and watercolor. His works illustrate a preference for purely American subjects and coincide with the national undercurrents of the times. The events of the Civil War, and a prior infatuation with European art and culture engendered an impulse to create art that was truly American in spirit.7 Homer’s images, however, were not conceived entirely without precedence. In America, Homer was influenced by the genre paintings of William Sidney Mount, the landscapes of the Hudson River School, and the realist tradition cultivated by his contemporaries Eastman Johnson and Thomas Eakins. In Europe, Homer looked to French models of art, particularly the realism of the Barbizon school, whose peasant scenes and agrarian landscapes paralleled his versions in the American countryside. Like the Impressionists, Homer was similarly inspired by the effects of light on form and an ephemeral depiction of nature.

    Most importantly, Homer is renowned for the uncompromising realism that came to define his art. As a critic of the period described, Winslow was a “genuine painter: that is, to see, and to reproduce what he sees, is his only care: to think, to imagine, to select, to refine, to compose… all this Mr. Homer triumphantly avoids.” 8Another critic acknowledged: “We like him most when he devotes his talent to georgic scenes of farmer life, puts them over an American sky and around them an American atmosphere, he is at his best.” 9

    During the last decade of his life Homer continued to travel and paint familiar subjects, although he suffered from declining health including stomach problems and a mild stroke in 1908.10 He passed away in his studio on September 29, 1910.

    Winslow Homer was one of the leading figures in American art in the mid to late 19th century. The breadth and achievement of this remarkable artist must be understood within a greater context of 19th century America and its art. Homer left behind an indelible legacy for succeeding generations of American artists, particularly reflected in the realist art of the Ashcan school and the resurgence of native subject matter espoused by the Regionalists. Homer’s works continue to resonate powerfully as some of the most authentic and symbolic examples of realist art in America. Today his works are collected by every major museum including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    II. Chronology

    • 1836 Born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 24.
    • 1854 Began an apprenticeship as a lithographer for the Boston firm of John
    • Bufford & Sons, where he worked for two years.
    • 1856 Began illustrating work for Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion.
    • 1857 Received first commission for Harper’s Weekly to create five wood engravings on the subject of Harvard student life.
    • 1859 Moved from Boston to New York City. Became a member of the National Academy of Design.
    • 1861 Commissioned to travel with the Union Army to provide illustrations for Harper’s through the war’s end in 1865.
    • 1866 Moved to Paris for one year. Exhibited first well known oil painting, Prisoners from the Front, at the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibit. Elected a full Academician to the National Academy of Design.
    • 1867 Exhibited at the Exposition Universelle.
    • 1868 Traveled to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The trip inspired a series of sketches, paintings, and engravings that were set in the area.
    • 1869 The Bridle Path was first shown publicly at the Brooklyn Art Association. Painted Long Branch, NJ.
    • 1870 First traveled to the Adirondack Mountains, staying at the summer home of painter Eliphalet Terry and family.
    • 1871 Visited the family of painter friend Lawson Valentine in Walden, NY and began regular summer trips to the countryside around Hurley, NY which served as the basis for a number of works, including Snap the Whip.
    • 1872 Moved to his Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City. Made a brief trip to the Catskill Mountains.
    • 1873 Spent the summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts and began working in watercolor, a medium that he would master by the end of his career. Became a member of the Palette Club.
    • 1874 Traveled to East Hampton, L.I. and sketched the beaches and farmland. Also traveled to the Adirondacks.
    • 1876 First visited the Valentine family’s Houghton Farm in Mountainville, NY. Snap the Whip is exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, PA. Elected a member of the American Society of Painters in Water Color.
    • 1877 Joined the Tile Club, a group of painters including J. Alden Weir, Edward Austin Abbey and William Merritt Chase who sought to blur distinctions between decorative and fine arts.
    • 1878 Visited friend Joseph Foxcroft Cole in Winchester, Mass and created sketches of his daughter Adelaide Cole and her friends, which figured into his Houghton Farm works.
    • 1881 Traveled to England. Exhibited watercolors from Gloucester, Massachusetts at the Water Color Society’s January exhibition.
    • 1882 Returned to New York after spending two years in Cullercoats, England. Younger brother Arthur B. Homer and his family built a house in the coastal town of Prouts Neck, Maine, where they had been summering since 1875.
    • 1883 Moved into the home of his older brother, Charles Savages Homer, Jr. in Prouts Neck, Maine. Converted the stables into his painting studio and living quarters.
    • 1884 Completed The Life Line. Visited the Bahamas for the first time.
    • 1885 Began a series of oil paintings of coastal seascapes of the Atlantic coastline.
    • 1888 Elected to the North Woods Club, a gentleman’s sports club in the Adirondacks.
    • 1889 Spent a month with the Baker family in Minerva, NY and returned to his studio to produce watercolors based on sketches made there.
    • 1898 Invited to join the American impressionist movement, but declined
    • 1900 Exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle, where he was awarded a gold medal.
    • 1910 Died at Prouts Neck at the age of seventy-four. Funeral was held at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    III. Collections

    • Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
    • Albright-Knox Gallery, NY
    • Art Institute of Chicago, IL
    • Bowdoin College Museum of Art, ME
    • Brooklyn Museum, NY
    • Butler Institute of American Art, OH
    • Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
    • Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
    • Columbus Museum of Art, OH
    • Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, NY
    • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
    • Currier Museum of Art, NH
    • Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, TX
    • Delaware Art Museum, DE
    • Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
    • Harvard University Art Museum, MA
    • Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
    • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
    • Mead Art Museum, Amherst, MA
    • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
    • Milwaukee Art Museum, WI
    • Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
    • Montclair Art Museum, NJ
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
    • Museum of Modern Art, NY
    • National Academy of Design, NY
    • National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
    • North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
    • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
    • Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
    • Phillips Academy, Andover, MA
    • Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
    • Portland Museum of Art, OR
    • Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
    • Rhode Island School of Design, RI
    • Toledo Museum of Art, OH
    • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
    • Williams College Museum of Art, MA
    • Worcester Art Museum, MA
    • Yale University Art Gallery, CT

    IV. Exhibitions

    • 1866 National Academy of Design, NY
    • 1867 Exposition Universelle, Paris, France
    • 1877 Boston Art Club, MA
    • 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, PA
    • 1881 American Society of Painters in Water Color, NY
    • 1893 Chicago World Fair, IL
    • 1898 Carnegie Institute, PA
    • 1901 Pan American Exhibition, Buffalo, NY
    • 1906 National Academy of Design, NY
    • 1911 Retrospective, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

    V. Memberships

    • American Society of Painters in Water Colors
    • Century Association
    • The National Academy of Design
    • North Woods Club
    • Palette Club
    • The Tile Club

    VI. Notes

    Gail S. Davidson, “Landscape Icons, Tourism and Land Development in the Northeast” in Gail S. Davidson et al. Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape (New York: Bulfinch Press, 2006) p. 114.
    2 Randall C. Griffin. Winslow Homer: An American Vision (New York: Phaidon, 2006), p. 17
    3 Randall C. Griffin. Winslow Homer: An American Vision (New York: Phaidon, 2006) p. 41
    4 Randall C. Griffin. Winslow Homer: An American Vision (New York: Phaidon, 2006) p. 8.
    5 Randall C. Griffin. Winslow Homer: An American Vision (New York: Phaidon, 2006) p. 93.
    6 Sarah Burns “The Pastoral Ideal: Winslow Homer’s Bucolic America” in Gail S. Davidson et al. Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape (New York: Bulfinch Press, 2006), pp. 119-120.
    7 Randall C. Griffin. Winslow Homer: An American Vision (New York: Phaidon, 2006) p. 43.
    8 Wayne Craven. American Art, History and Culture (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003), p. 330.
    9 Sarah Burns “The Pastoral Ideal: Winslow Homer’s Bucolic America” in Gail S. Davidson et al. Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape (New York: Bulfinch Press, 2006), p. 119
    10 Randall C. Griffin. Winslow Homer: An American Vision (New York: Phaidon, 2006), p.209.

    VII. Suggested Resources

    • Cikovsky, Nicolai. Winslow Homer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
    • Ferber, Linda S. Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent and the American Watercolor Movement. Washington: Brooklyn Museum in association with the Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
    • Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1973.
    • Kushner, Marilyn S. et al. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. NY: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2000.
    • Robertson, Bruce. Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

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