In celebration of Winslow Homer’s birthday (February 24, 1836) I wanted to put together a post about this important New England artist. His work is iconic because of his depictions of New England and epic seascapes, like Northeaster, 1895 seen below. The etching above of Eight Bells, is my personal favorite (as well as the 1886 oil painting). And his career as an illustrator has always inspired me in my own work (although my qualities pale in comparison).
Born in Boston into an old New England family, Homer began his art career at a young age. His mother was an amateur watercolorist and taught him. He and his mother remained very close throughout his life, while his relationship with his volatile father was always strained. When Homer reached 19, his father got him an apprenticeship with commercial lithographer J.H. Bufford in Boston. After two years working there (and turning down a position as an illustrator at Harper’s Bazaar) Homer went on to be a freelance illustrator for almost twenty years, creating illustrations of Boston and New England life. He vowed to never have a master/boss again after Bufford. And he was successful in this.
In 1859 Homer opened a studio in New York City and attended classes at the National Academy of Design. There he studied briefly with artist Frédéric Rondel who taught him the basics of oil painting. His mother had hopes of sending him on to Europe to continue his studies but Harper’s sent him to the front lines of the Civil War to illustrate depictions of the war, from the battles to the camps. When he returned back to his studio, he refocused on painting and began a series based on some of his war sketches. He then switched to subjects with women and children while reminiscing of simpler times.
Homer did make it to France, where he stayed in Paris for a year continuing his studies of oil painting. His preferred depicting peasant life and similarly simple subjects. in 1875 he quit his illustration career and moved forward thriving solely (albeit precariously) on his paintings. Critics were opinionated, but supportive of his ability to make unappealing subjects rather pictorial in their own way.
When he returned to the USA, Homer switched to watercolor while spending a summer in Gloucester. These sold much more readily and significantly eased his financial burden. Due to some emotional turmoil, or his consistent shyness, Homer became somewhat of a recluse in the late 1870s and moved out of the city to Gloucester, at times living in the lighthouse. He went on to spend to two years in England in a couple coastal villages where his style became increasingly more constrained and deliberate, and his palate more sober.
Upon his return to the states, Homer showed his new work in New York City and was received as being an all together “new Homer”. His subjects were no longer whimsical, but hard and real. In 1883 he moved to Prouts Neck, Maine and lived in his family estate’s carriage house. Here he began to concentrate on monumental seascapes and nautical themes. Although he was now revered as one of America’s greatest painters, his work was not as popular as say the flattering portraits of John Singer Sargent, and his seascapes sometimes took years to sell. Homer began to take mini trips to the Florida and the Bahamas to break up the long Maine winters. His watercolor works there were again praised for their freshness, but also struggled to be sold.
In 1893, Homer painted The Fox Hunt, his largest painting to date. It was immediately procured by the Pennsylvania Museum of Art making it his first work in a major museum collection. Over the ten years following this momentous occasion, Homer’s paintings began to sell more frequently and he gained the financial stability that he would have for the rest of his life. In 1910, Homer passed away in Prouts Neck at the age of 74. He is buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA and his studio in Prouts Neck was sold to the Portland Museum of Art. In September 2012, the museum completed a thorough renovation of the studio and reopened it for visitors.