Winslow Homer was born on February 24, 1836 in Boston, MA to a middle-class family. No record of the artist’s formal training exists. However, it has been noted that his mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, was an amateur watercolorist of unusual talent. At the age of 19, Homer worked as an apprentice under Boston lithographer John H. Bufford.
After three years as an apprentice, Homer opened a studio in Boston, where he began his career as a freelance illustrator. Over the next twenty years, he worked as a correspondent for some of the periods most popular illustrated weakly journals, including Ballou’s Pictorial in Boston, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and Harper’s Weekly in New York. He quickly became the most celebrated illustrator in America and covered the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Harper’s Weekly sent the artist to the front lines, where he studied the mundane camp life of the war firsthand. In 1859, he moved to New York so he could be nearer to the offices of the illustrated magazines.
Homer’s career as a painter almost exactly coincides with the Civil War. He received almost no training as a painter and only briefly studied under artist Frederic Rondel at the National Academy of Design (NAD). In 1863, two of his paintings- Home, Sweet Home and The Last Goose at Yorktown- were accepted into the annual exhibition of the NAD. Homer became an overnight success.
In 1866, his immensely popular painting, also of the Civil War subject, titled Prisoners of the Front was one of the few paintings from the United States to be shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Following the exhibition, Homer spent a year of study at the artists’ colony, Cernay-la-Ville, in the French countryside.
Upon his return from Europe in 1870, Homer was immersed in the booming New York art scene. He held a studio in the famed Tenth Street Building and was friends with American art critic and artist Eugene Benson, whom promoted the appearance of modernity and democracy in American art. He began to paint scenes of public schoolhouses, such as his Snap the Whip of 1872. The paintings of this period uphold the democratic beliefs he and Benson promoted.
Though Homer’s paintings were generally well received, his painterly style often bothered many critics. They considered his brushstrokes to be too freely applied and much too evocative. In 1875, Homer furthered his painterly exploration by trying his hand at watercolor. In that same year, he ended his career as a commericial illustrator. Although the medium of watercolor was becoming increasingly more respected, Homer’s works were often criticized, like his oil paintings, for their looseness and suggestiveness.
In the 1880s, Homer embarked on a twenty-month long trip to England, where he stayed in the fishing village of Cullercoats in Yorkshire. Although we may never know why Homer left for England, it is widely believed that the trip was intended to be an escape from a romantic disappointment. In the years to come, Homer never married and became increasingly reserved. Nevertheless, it was on this escape to England that Homer produced his first seascapes.
Upon his return to America in 1882, Homer exhibited his new works to a glowing audience. In 1883, the artist moved to Prout’s Neck, near Scarborough, Maine. There, he retreated from society. Rumors began to spread that Homer moved to Prout’s Neck in order to become a more devoted artist. Soon, the rumors turned the hermetic Homer into a heroic, national figure.
He continued to dominate the American art scene for the remainder of his life. In the early 1900s, he became interested in depicting wildlife and sport fishing. He was sometimes referred to as a “sporting artist”; however, he never abandoned his interest in paintings seascapes. Many of his late paintings depict the Romantic subject of the tossed boat at sea. Charged with weighty brushstrokes, the paintings possibly suggest the artist’s battle with loneliness. On September 29, 1910, Homer, a hero of American art, died alone in his studio in Prout’s Neck.
4:07 | Narrated by Frank Goss | Released for The Summer Impressionists, 2014
AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Though Winslow Homer was not thoroughly instructed in the art of painting, his experience as a commercial illustrator provided him the training he needed to become an innovative painter later in life. Much like a photojournalist of today, Homer traveled to dangerous front lines in order to capture truthful representations of the Civil War. Today, these illustrations have become iconic imagery of life during the nation’s revolutionary period.
Much of Homer’s success as a painter is owed to these illustrations. His oils contain an authenticity that other paintings of the Civil War lack. Similar to his drawings, these early paintings are executed in rigid outlines and contain dramatic contrasts in light.
Homer’s post-Civil War paintings are occupied with peaceful scenes of children playing in schoolyards, fishermen at the lakes of the Adirondacks, workers in cotton fields, and families on seashores. They capture the vivacity of American life during the post-Civil War period. The subject of war no longer takes precedent in Homer’s paintings; rather, man’s harmony with nature is expressed.
Homer never admitted to having any direct influences; nonetheless, his brush speaks otherwise. As the artist aged, his style matured from a rigid to a looser handling of the brush. Upon his return from England in 1883, he began to depict seascapes in an approach similar to the European Romantics of a generation earlier.
Homer’s last paintings differ greatly from his earlier works in both style and subject matter. The watercolors and oils of his final years evoke a sense of somberness and often hold an ominous reminder of death. The nature in these paintings is no longer harmonious. The figures on the shore and the sailors at sea are helpless in front of Homer’s threatening waters. Almost a prophesy of his own death, these paintings somewhat ironically remain as some of Homer’s most memorable works.
AWARDS & AFFILIATIONS
1901 Gold Medal, Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, NY
1902 Gold Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA
1902 Gold Medal, Charleston Exhibition, SC
1904 Gold Medal, St. Louis Exposition, MO
National Academy of Design
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, VA
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Delaware Art Museum, DE
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK
Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
Joslyn Art Museum, NE
Krannert Art Museum, IL
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY
Milwaukee Art Museum, WI
Montclair Art Museum, NJ
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
Newark Museum, NJ
North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Portland Museum of Art, ME
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Toledo Museum of Art, OH
Worcester Art Museum, MA
1836 Born in Boston, MA on February 24
1842 Moves to Cambridge, MA with family
1885 Begins apprenticeship to a Boston commercial lithographer
1857 Begins free-lance work for Harper’s Weekly
1859 Moves to New York City
1859-60 Enrolls in evening life-drawing classes at the National Academy of Design (NAD)
1861 Homer is sent to Washington to cover President Lincoln’s inauguration and the outbreak of the Civil War
1863 Paintings The Last Goose at Yorktown and Home, Sweet Home mark his debut as a painter at the NAD’s annual exhibition
1864 Elected Associate Academician of the NAD
1865 Elected full Academician of the NAD
1866 Spends a year of study in Paris and at the artist’s colony in Cernay-la-ville
1867 Exhibits two works at the Paris Exposition Universelle and returns to New York
1870 First visits the Adirondack Mountains of upper New York
1871 Holds a studio at the famed Tenth Street Building
1873 Executes first serious watercolors
1874 Visits sites in Northern New York over summer and exhibits at the American Society of Painters in Watercolor
1875 First visits Prout’s Neck, ME and ends career as a commercial illustrator
1877 A founding member of the Tile Club
1881 Travels to England, where he stays for the next twenty months
1883 Settles at Prout’s Neck, ME
1884-7 Winters in Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas
1889 Starts to make regular trips to the Adirondacks
1890 Executes first seascapes
1893 Enters 15 paintings at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago
1895-1900 Travels to Quebec, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Adirondacks
1898 Monumental two-man show with George Innes at the Union League Club in New York
1899 Thomas B. Clarke sale of Homer’s paintings takes place
1900 French Government buys Homer’s A Summer Night
1906 The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchases Homer’s The Gulf Stream
1908 Suffers from a stroke
1909 Travels to Florida
1910 Makes a two-week trip to the Adirondacks. Dies on September 29 in his studio in Prout’s Neck, ME
1. Beam, Philip C. et al. Winslow Homer in the 1890s : Prout’s Neck Observed. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990.
2. Cikovsky, Jr., Nicolai. Winslow Homer. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990.
3. Conrads, Margaret C. Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s. Princeton, NJ: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2001.
4. Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1973.
5. Johns, Elizabeth. Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
6. Kushner, Marilyn S. et al. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2000.
7. Winslow Homer, 1836-1910: A Selection from the Cooper-Hewitt Collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972.
8. Robinson, Bruce. Reckoning with Winslow Homer : his late paintings and their influence. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1990.
2005 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1999 Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
1996 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
1973 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1907-08 Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1904 St. Louis Exposition, MO
1902 Charleston Exhibition, SC
1901 Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, NY
1900 Paris Exposition, France
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL
1888, 1893-97, 1900-1910 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA
1877-1909 Boston Art Club, MA
1867 Paris Exposition, France
1864-82 Brooklyn Art Association, NY
1863-88 National Academy of Design, NY, NY