Biography of Winslow Homer
Childhood and Education
Winslow Homer was born to Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer in Boston, Massachusetts, the middle child of three sons. The family moved when young Winslow was six years of age to the nearby rural town of Cambridge. His mother was an amateur watercolorist who taught her artistic son the rudiments of her craft; their shared affinity for the arts fostered a close relationship that lasted throughout their lives. His father, on the other hand, was a largely-failed businessman and, in the words of art historian and curator Nicolai Cikovsky, an eccentric in "behavior and appearance." He was, nevertheless, supportive of his son's artistic ambitions. As Cikovsky details in the exhibition catalogue for the comprehensive 1995 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., "He also encouraged his son's 'leaning towards art' by acquiring for him, on a business trip to England, such resources for artistic self-help as 'a complete set of lithographs by Julian [sic] - representations of heads, ears, noses, eyes, faces, trees, houses, everything that a young draughtsman might fancy trying to make his hand at." Additionally, it was his father who arranged the hopeful artist with an apprenticeship to an acquaintance John H. Bufford, a prominent commercial lithographer in Boston, when Winslow reached 19 years of age.
Although this period represents the closest experience resembling any formal training, creating illustrations for popular sheet music, Homer would later describe these two years as merely a "treadmill existence." At the end of his apprenticeship in 1857, Homer swore never to work for anyone again, opened his own studio in Boston and established a successful freelance career as a commercial illustrator. Although Homer quickly gained stature, creating works for magazines like Ballou's Pictorial and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in Boston, as well as the influential Harper's Weekly in New York, he would soon reveal his true ambition: to become a painter.
Accordingly, in 1859, Homer moved to New York which was by then a major center of both publishing and artistic activity, where fierce rivalry between the legacy of the older generation of Hudson River School artists confronted the new trends imported from Europe. Shortly after establishing his studio in the city, Homer enrolled in classes at the National Academy of Design in the fall of that same year. As Cikovsky details, "Sometime early in 1861, he took a month of lessons from Frederick Rondel (a Boston artist whom he may already have known), who once a week, on Saturdays, taught him how to handle his brush, set his palette, & etc." Homer took additional classes at the academy in 1863, but credits his primary instruction, not to a specific mentor, but the study of nature. For the young artist, Europe beckoned as the next logical step to hone his developing skills, but the escalation of the US Civil War put such plans on hold.
Winslow Homer's early career as a freelance illustrator brought him into direct contact with the realities of the Civil War. Within six months of the war's outbreak, Harper's Weekly assigned Homer to cover the war from the front lines, which proved a turning point in his personal and artistic development. During Homer's multiple visits to the camps of the Northern troops, he produced numerous studies for engravings ranging from genre scenes to crowded scenes of conflict. Yet, it was his nuanced depictions of the everyday lives of the common soldiers which dominate his oeuvre from this period. These sketches later formed the basis of his commercial illustrations and today also provide a unique view into the changing technologies of modern warfare, most notably in The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp Shooter on Picket Duty (1862). During this time, Homer also made his "professional debut" as a painter with great success at the annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design in 1863 with two paintings, Home, Sweet Home and The Last Goose at Yorktown, both focused on the daily life of Union soldiers.
After the war's end, Homer's wartime sketches continued to inform a series of paintings, most notably Veteran in a New Field (1865) and Prisoners on the Front (1866), which secured his reputation as an artist and remain among his best-known paintings to this day. These works secured his artistic reputation in New York with the latter also chosen to represent the United States at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1866. Even with this success, Homer continued to make commercial works until 1875, at which point oil painting and watercolor became Homer's primary occupations.
In 1867, Homer traveled with his painting to France for the first of his two trips to Europe, and lived in Paris for nearly a year. The young American's stay in France coincided with exhibitions of works by Realist artists like Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet. However, as Cikovsky points out, Homer found greater inspiration in Jean-François Millet and The Barbizon School, a landscape-oriented movement that also gained popularity in America in the 1860s. During his stay, Homer would also have seen the pre-Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir who seemed as equally compelled by the natural effects of light as their American counterpart.
Upon returning to the United States, surprisingly, Homer did not exhibit new paintings from his time abroad, yet he did show, in the words of historian Margaret C. Conrads, "Prisoners on the Front, the canvas that had single-handedly catapulted him to fame in 1866," which again went on view at the National Academy of Design.
In fact, there was a sense of nostalgia and innocence mixed in with a distinctly American manifestation of modern, democratic ideals that characterized the paintings created by Homer upon his return. The style of his work, even in this early period, irritated critics of his day, some of whom described it as "unfinished," and has long frustrated anyone seeking to create a lineage between Homer and earlier masters in either the United States or Europe. A well-known saying by Homer encapsulates his goal of artistic independence: "If a man wants to be an artist, he must never look at pictures." Accordingly, Homer readily continued to paint images of rural American life in his unique style, including a series of works that depicted scenes of rural schoolchildren run by young school mistresses and insightful genre scenes of African Americans, without adopting the aesthetics or urban inclinations of the "advanced" trends in French painting.
Homer's work gained traction during the 1870s, and during the summer of 1873 while in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Homer began to devote serious attention to painting with watercolors for which he remains the greatest American painter associated with the medium through today.
Throughout the steady rise of his popularity, critical reception of his work remained mixed. Of his works in the 1876 Centennial Exposition, one independent critic wrote, "We frankly confess that we detest his subjects...he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial," while a write up in The New York Tribune praised his originality: "There is no picture in this exhibition, nor can we remember when there has been a picture in any exhibition, that can be named alongside this."
In 1878, Homer was again included with a group of artists selected to represent America at the Exposition Universelle in Paris where, as Margaret C. Conrad explains: "European critic's responses reiterated the commonly accepted hallmarks of Homer's Americanness: his subjects, spirit of originality, simple-heartedness, honesty (though considered gauche by some), truth of sentiment and treatment, and strong local character."
Although usually described as a private person, Homer's time in both France and New York included camaraderie with his fellow artists. In the later 1870s, he participated in The Tile Club, an artistic society founded in 1877 responding to the burgeoning popularity of decorative arts in the United States. The group of artists, including painters William Merritt Chase, Arthur Quartley, John H. Twachtman and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, frequently met, went on painting excursions, and would each contribute paintings on an 8-by-8-inch tile, hence the club's name. While active with this group, including hosting dinners at his studio, these relationships did not seem to last beyond Homer's membership in the club, during which he earned the nickname, "The Obtuse Bard," perhaps providing some insight into his character.
Around 1880, Homer became markedly more reclusive, removing himself from urban social life for a quieter life in small towns, moving to an island in Gloucester Harbor for the summer. Some speculate this had to do with a series of heartbreaks or other such emotional turmoil, though such conjecture remains impossible to confirm as Homer kept his private life quite guarded. As he reportedly once told to a potential biographer, "It would probably kill me to have such a thing appear - and as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it." Regardless, this shift in environment had a significant impact on the subject-matter of his works, which grew increasingly dramatic and even brooding during this period.
The first place Homer went after leaving the hustle-and-bustle of New York was the remote fishing village of Cullercoats in Northumberland, England, where he lived from 1881 to 1882. In his essay titled A Process of Change, Franklin Kelly, a historian of American and British art, described, "Virtually every writer who has had anything to say about Homer since 1882 has regarded the trip to England as a critical turning point in his career, one demarcating his early years, with all their promise, from his mature career, when he would bring to his art a new level of intensity and purpose." His subjects in Cullercoats, often portrayed in watercolor, shifted toward the working classes, most often the fishermen and women whose lives were both separated and united by the sea. Homer simultaneously captured the atmospheric fog-lined shore while depicting scenes in an unemotional manner that leads art historians to read the works from this period as representations of the daily heroism of common laborers. Others, such as English writer and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith look to an objective "photographic influence" in Homer's work with "an emphasis on simple, static and often silhouetted forms." When he returned to the United States and exhibited these works in New York, critics noted the differences between these and his earlier paintings: "He is a very different Homer from the one we knew in days gone by," now his pictures "touch a far higher plane...They are works of High Art."
Although Homer would continue to show his work in New York for the rest of his career, he chose not to live in the city upon returning to American. Instead, as Helen S. Cooper notes, "The need for isolation that had led Homer to spend over a year and a half in Cullercoats remained with him in America. He found an appropriate environment in Prout's Neck, a rocky peninsula on the coast of Maine, ten miles south of Portland." The move north was first made by his younger brother Arthur, who was the first to visit the region on his honeymoon in 1875, and continued to summer there in the following years. In 1883, the family invested in property, including Winslow who had intended to likewise summer at the property but upon the death of his mother the following year, took up permanent residence in a small cottage where he also set up his studio.
The artist had visited the secluded region for nearly a decade before relocating to spend the rest of his life in Prout's Neck, where his closest relationships were his brother Charles, and his sister-in-law Mattie. Homer bought the carriage house of the main house which belonged to his brother, where he built his artist studio with a view looking beyond the rocky cliffs to the sea. During this period, his most famous paintings might suggest a life of solitude and forebearance. However, Homer is known to have regularly traveled far from the frigid northern shores of Prout's Neck for the warmer climes of Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Florida during the winter months, capturing the distinct aura of the tropical climate in a series of watercolor paintings and sketches. However, upon return to his studio set above the rocky seaside cliffs, Homer would return to his relentless explorations of the sea.
At the age of 74, Winslow Homer passed away in Prout's Neck in 1910.
The Legacy of Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer is widely considered one of the foremost American painters of the nineteenth century. His work figured importantly in developing an American artistic sensibility at a time when European influences were the topic of much debate by artists and critics in the United States. His resolute independence was a source of influence for those of his own time. As noted by art historian Matthew Baigell in A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture, "Homer and Eakins transformed genre painting and portraiture into strong statements of personal sensibility and in their late works discovered an America that impressionist pleasantries and American renaissance escapism entirely overlooked." Homer's influence is also evident in the coarse naturalism of the succeeding generations of Realists, known as the Ashcan Painters, from Robert Henri to his students, including George Bellows, George Luks and John Sloan.
Conversely, Homer's visions of the sea served as inspiration for the transcendentalist painter Rockwell Kent who, like Henri and Bellows, travelled to the rocky coast of Maine to paint from the same terrain the inspired his hero. Kent's unpopulated landscapes, including wintry scenes of the Maine Coast, are noted for the formal qualities that tie his work to Homer. In the words of J. Nilsen Laurvik, director of the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, Kent was "a worthy successor to the master of Prout's Neck, whos rugged, rock-ribbed coast he has depicted with forthright simplicity and directness that has something of the stark actuality and bitter tang of the sea itself."
The influence of Winslow Homer continued into the 20th century, particularly among artists who largely rejected the European inspired trends of abstraction and continued to pursue a distinctly American voice in their art. Among the American Regionalists, the vision of Homer found greatest resonance with the realist paintings of Edward Hopper whose urban landscapes match the eerie silence of Homer's desolate seascapes. Somewhat surprising is Homer's influence on those artists who more readily identify with the influences of European abstraction in the early 20th century such as Marsden Hartley. Both Hopper and Hartley took multiple trips to the Maine coast, repeating the pilgrimage first taken by Henri and Bellows. But where the influence of Homer on the succeeding realists is overt, Hartley sought to fuse the two seemingly diverse approaches to create a modern regionalist style.
It is fitting that for an artist whose long career explored various media, from printmaking to watercolor to oil painting, that his influence would be equally diverse. Both Homer and Hopper began their career as illustrators, and Homer's direct approach also influenced the style of illustrators such as Howard Pyle and his student N.C. Wyeth who even named his studio "Eight Bells" after an eponymous painting by Homer. The admiration for the 19th-century master passed to his children, perhaps most notably Andrew Wyeth who shared Homer's affinity for wintry landscapes.
Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Molly Enholm
Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Molly Enholm
First published on 10 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly