Premier American Painter of the 19th Century
Winslow Homer (1836–1910) is regarded by many as the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century. Born in Boston and raised in rural Cambridge, he began his career as a commercial printmaker, first in Boston and then in New York, where he settled in 1859. In October of the same year, he was sent to the front in Virginia as an artist-correspondent for the new illustrated journal, Harper’s Weekly. Homer’s earliest Civil War paintings, dating from about 1863, are anecdotal, like his prints. As the war drew to a close, however, his canvases reflect a more profound understanding of the war’s impact and meaning.
For Homer, the late 1860s and the 1870s were a time of artistic experimentation and prolific and varied output. Women at leisure and children at play or simply preoccupied by their own concerns were regular subjects for the artist in the 1870s. In addition to expanding his mastery of oil paint during that decade, Homer began to create watercolors, and their success enabled him to give up his work as a freelance illustrator by 1875.
In the early 1880s, Homer came increasingly to desire solitude, and his art took on a new intensity. In 1881, he traveled to England on his second and final trip abroad. After passing briefly through London, he settled in Cullercoats, a village near Tynemouth on the North Sea, remaining there from the spring of 1881 to November 1882. He became sensitive to the strenuous and courageous lives of its inhabitants, particularly the women, whom he depicted hauling and cleaning fish, mending nets, and, most poignantly, standing at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their men. When the artist returned to New York, both he and his art were greatly changed.
In the summer of 1883, Homer moved to Maine, and lived there until his death. He enjoyed isolation and was inspired by privacy and silence to paint the great themes of his career: the struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile, transient human life to the timelessness of nature. In ambitious works of the 1880s, men challenge the ocean’s power with their own strength and cunning. By about 1890, however, Homer left narrative behind to concentrate on the beauty, force, and drama of the sea itself. In their dynamic compositions and richly textured passages, his late seascapes capture the look and feel (and even suggest the sound) of masses of onrushing and receding water. For Homer’s contemporaries, these were the most extravagantly admired of all his works. They remain among his most famous today, appreciated for their virtuoso brushwork, depth of feeling, and hints of modernist abstraction.
Homer died in his studio in 1910. Although by the 1890s he had become generally recognized as a leading American painter, and his work brought top prices, his passing was but briefly noted, and appreciation of his artistic achievement came only in the years following his death.