Born February 24, 1836
Died September 29, 1910
Prout's Neck, Maine
American painter who received critical acclaim for
his portrayals of Civil War scenes
Winslow Homer was one of the most famous and respected American artists of the nineteenth century. He is best known for the dramatic paintings that he created from the 1880s until his death in 1910. These works emphasized mankind's relationship with a natural world that could be both beautiful and violent. But the first works composed by Homer to receive critical acclaim were actually created many years earlier, during the American Civil War. His drawings and paintings of that period showed the harsh life of Civil War soldiers in an honest and sympathetic way. Today, Homer's wartime paintings and drawings continue to provide a powerful representation of the Civil War experience.
A Massachusetts childhood
Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in February 1836 to a middle-class family. Six years later, the family moved to nearby Cambridge, where Winslow and his two brothers attended school. Winslow's father was a jolly businessman who tried many different schemes to get rich over the years. His mother was a gentle woman who introduced Winslow to the world of art at a young age. Before long, he was spending a great deal of his free time drawing pictures of the world around him.
As a youngster, Winslow spent long hours roaming through the countryside around his family's house. He sometimes took pencils and paper with him on his hikes so that he could draw farmhouses, lakes, trees, and other outdoor subjects. When he was nineteen, he reluctantly accepted a job as an assistant at a local lithography or print-making shop called Bufford's. As he feared, the job proved to be a very boring one with little opportunity for him to be creative. But he continued to work at the shop until he was twenty-one, as he had earlier agreed.
After leaving the print shop, Homer resolved to become a freelance artist. A freelancer is a person—usually an artist or writer—who sells his services to various businesses or individuals without making a long-term commitment to any of them. Homer quickly taught himself a new method of illustration known as woodblock engraving and started selling his services to a number of American publishers.
Moves to New York
In the fall of 1859, Homer moved from Boston to New York, where many of America's leading publishers kept their offices. He soon began taking classes at the National Academy of Design, a leading art school in the city. He also continued with his freelance drawing. Within weeks of his arrival in New York, the editors of a leading newspaper called Harper's Weekly offered him a permanent position on their staff. Homer liked the independent life of freelancing, though, so he turned down their offer. "I declined because I had had a taste of freedom," he stated. "The slavery at Bufford's was too fresh in my recollection. . . . From the time that I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and never shall have any [again]."
Still, he continued to sell many of his drawings to Harper's, which was quickly emerging as one of America's leading publications. "Homer's modest . . . renditions [inter-pretations] of [America at mid-century] made him one of the most popular illustrators in the era's greatest news magazine," wrote James Thomas Flexner in The World of Winslow Homer. "He depicted those aspects of local life that appealed to him. He showed America at play, sometimes children but more often young men and women of the right age for flirtation and courting [dating]. . . . So Winslow Homer fiddled in historic sunshine, ignoring storm clouds that were mounting on the horizon. The storm was to break as the greatest tragedy in American history: the Civil War."
Homer and the Civil War
The American Civil War, which began in April 1861, pitted the nation's Northern and Southern states against one another. These two regions had been arguing with one another for years over a range of social, economic, and political issues. The main issue dividing the two sides, however, was slavery. The Northern states wanted to abolish (eliminate) slavery, convinced that it was an immoral practice. The South, however, refused to consider taking such a step. White Southerners argued that their economy and social institutions could not survive without slavery. As Northern calls to end slavery persisted, Southerners became increasingly resentful and defensive. America's westward expansion during this time made this dispute even worse, since both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political ideas—into the new territories and states. The two sides finally went to war when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America.
At first, the Civil War did not seem to have much of an impact on Homer's work. He spent the summer of 1861 in New York and Massachusetts, where he continued to draw peaceful scenes of America. He also started painting around this time. But as the months passed and the war produced its first significant casualties, Homer decided to investigate the conflict firsthand.
In the fall of 1861, Homer arranged to travel with Union general George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry) and his Army of the Potomac. In March 1862, McClellan and his army launched a major offensive into Virginia in an effort to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Homer accompanied McClellan's army on this offensive, which came to be known as the Peninsula Campaign.
Over the next several months, Homer witnessed repeated clashes between Union and Confederate troops as McClellan fought rebel (Confederate) general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) for control of the Virginia peninsula. He also studied ordinary scenes of camp life, watching lonely and battered soldiers as they ate, slept, underwent training, and took care of camp chores. According to Homer's mother, her artist son "suffered much" during these months at the front (the area where enemy armies meet and fight). Homer was "without food 3 days at a time & all in camp either died or were carried away with typhoid fever," wrote his mother in a letter. "He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him."
Homer eventually recovered from his grim experiences during the Peninsula Campaign. As the war continued, he even returned to the front on a few other occasions. He spent most of the rest of the war, however, in his New York studio, where he composed paintings and drawings based on sketches that he had made in the field.
Many of Homer's drawings appeared in Harper's Weekly while the war was still raging. They helped the newspaper gain a reputation as one of the leading chroniclers (recorders) of the war in America. As time passed, however, the artist became better known for his Civil War paintings. As with his drawings, Homer concentrated on scenes of camp life or individual portraits in these works. Rather than create heroic battlefield scenes, he painted images that showed the impact of war on individual soldiers.
In Home, Sweet Home (produced in 1863), for example, Homer showed two men thinking about their families after receiving letters from home. In Trooper Meditating beside a Grave (1865), Homer shows a lone soldier mourning over the gravestone of a comrade. In The Veteran in a New Field (1865), he offers an image of a solitary army veteran who has returned home to tend to his wheat field. And in Prisoners from the Front (1866), Homer shows three weary Confederate soldiers as they surrender to a solemn Union officer. Altogether, Homer produced more than fifty paintings on the American Civil War during the mid-1860s. Today, these works continue to stand as some of the most powerful representations of that chapter in the nation's history.
A life of travel
After the war ended, Homer's reputation as one of the country's most promising painters continued to grow. Many of his early postwar paintings depicted American rural scenes, but as time passed he turned to other subjects. In the late 1870s, he traveled to the American South, where he produced a series of colorful paintings on black life. His dignified portraits of black families and workers made some white Southerners angry, but he ignored their complaints. When one white Southern woman asked him, "Why don't you paint our lovely girls instead of these dreadful creatures?" he replied that he preferred painting black females because they were prettier.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Homer spent long periods of time in England, the West Indies, and Canada. All of these locations became subjects for his paintings, which by this time were well-known around the world. His base of operations, however, became a cottage at Prout's Neck, Maine, along the Atlantic Ocean. The rugged seascapes of this region became an inspiration for a series of bold paintings showing the power of the sea and man's relationship to the natural world. These dramatic works—Fog Warning (produced in 1885), Eight Bells (1886), The Wreck (1897), Right and Left (1909), and many others—became the most famous paintings of Homer's entire career. Homer died at Prout's Neck in 1910, leaving behind a long and distinguished body of work that continues to earn praise today.
Where to Learn More
Cikovsky, Nicolai Jr., and Franklin Kelly. Winslow Homer. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1995.
Flexner, James Thomas. The World of Winslow Homer, 1836–1910. New York: Time Inc., 1966.
Gardner, Albert Ten Eyck. Winslow Homer, American Artist: His World andHis Work. New York: C. N. Potter, 1961.
Grossman, Julian. Echo of a Distant Drum: Winslow Homer and the CivilWar. New York: Abrams, 1974.
Little, Carl. Winslow Homer: His Art, His Light, His Landscapes. First Glance Books, 1997.
National Gallery of Art: The Collection. Winslow Homer Watercolors. [Online] http://www.nga/gov/collection/gallery/homerwc/homerwcmain3.html (accessed on October 10, 1999).
Winslow Homer 1836–1910. [Online] http://web.syr.edu/~ribond/homer.html (accessed on October 10, 1999).
Winslow Homer: The Obtuse Bard. [Online] http://pages.prodigy.net/bueschen/homer/ (accessed on October 10, 1999).
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.
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).
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. □
Homer, Winslow (1836−1910)
Homer, Winslow (1836−1910)
Winslow Homer was an American painter and engraver. After beginning his career as a freelance illustrator for magazines like Harper's Weekly, he turned to the subject of children in one-room schoolhouses, on farms, and at the seashore. By the 1880s he moved away from this theme of childhood, and began to paint the dramatic seascapes of Maine and the hunting and fishing scenes from the Adirondacks for which he is well-known.
Homer's pictures of schoolchildren depict both the interior and exterior of the rural red one-room schoolhouse. Homer publicly exhibited or published eight paintings and two engravings of this subject between 1871 and 1874. The most well-known of these is a picture (of which there are two versions) of a group of boys playing the game of snap-the-whip. Others depict the young female teacher or children engaged in their lessons. The female teacher was a sign of the modernity of the pictures (the prevalence of female teachers was brought about by the Civil War), while the rural one-room schoolhouse was a nostalgic image for urban viewers. Importantly, the public school was seen as a uniquely American institution, and therefore the pictures were also seen as particularly national. Two of them represented the United States at the 1878 Paris Exposition.
During these years Homer also painted many farm scenes, featuring both children and adults. He depicted boys relaxing and engaged in summer activities (including crossing a pasture to go fishing, sleeping on the grass, eating watermelon, and fishing from a log). Many of these pastoral images also include young girls, and often a flirtatious exchange between the two. Henry James described these figures as "little barefoot urchins and little girls in calico sun-bonnets." Towards the end of the decade Homer painted a group of works which depicted young girls on the farm, or "shepherdesses," as contemporary critics called them.
Some of Homer's paintings were watercolors, including a large group from his 1873 summer visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts. These pictures depict children, especially boys, along the seashore: in the water on boats (including Breezing Up ), on the beach, digging for clams, and looking out to sea. In Gloucester, where many fishermen were lost at sea in the 1870s, this last theme (as in pictures like Waiting for Dad ) is especially poignant.
Homer's pictures are consistent with the growing interest in childhood in the late nineteenth century. Although they often depicted a sense of an earlier world, they were very different from the sentimentalized genre pictures of the period. As such, they received a mixed reception from contemporary critics. While some praised the subjects as particularly national and representative of the unique way of American life, others lambasted the subjects as coarse; while some saw his style as innovative and modern, others saw it as unfinished and crude. The mixed responses are typical of the changing standards of the art world in the 1870s; during the twentieth century some of these pictures of children were among Homer's best-known works.
See also: Images of Childhood.
Cikovsky, Nicolai, Jr., and Frank Kelly. 1995. Winslow Homer. Washington: National Gallery of Art.
Conrads, Margaret C. 2001. Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Melissa Geisler Trafton