Biography: Winslow Homer
His visual account of each location he went to, such as the early seascapes of the East Coast and the vibrant tropical watercolors of the Bahamas, emphasizes the distinctiveness of those locations.
One can picture Winslow Homer strolling along the Maine coastline, enraptured by the sublime power of the natural world, and attempting to capture that experience through the brilliance of his gestural brushwork on his canvases. The power of nature is depicted in these paintings as sublime, eternal, and aloof to the drama of the human condition. The gritty aesthetic of these later years was not an exception but rather the defining feature of Homer's career. He frequently approached subjects with a passion for telling a story that was disregarded by professional artists of his time, such as rural schoolchildren, hunting scenes, or the lives of recently emancipated African-Americans.
His uncompromising Realism helped to steer American art in a new direction, setting it apart from his European contemporaries' stage-like settings and doing away with the idealized landscapes and slick upper-class portraits that had previously dominated American painting. Instead, Homer presented a detailed and seemingly unplanned account of the lives of ordinary Americans. This focus on the distinctive features of American life and landscape captivated not only Homer but also later generations of American artists who drew inspiration from him.
Other American painting legends, such as Robert Henri, George Bellows, and later the modernist Marsden Hartley, who each made their pilgrimage to the rocky shorelines of Maine, would build on the naturalism that characterizes Homer's long career. Homer and those who came after him used images of the turbulent and seemingly endless northern Atlantic to explore themes of mortality. (The Art Story, n.d.)
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Winslow Homer's mother was an amateur watercolorist who taught her artistic son the fundamentals of her field; their shared love of the arts forged a lasting bond between them. His father was an eccentric businessman who was generally unsuccessful. He nevertheless encouraged his son's artistic endeavors. He pressed his son's "inclination toward painting" while on a business trip to England by buying him "a whole series of Julian lithographs—depictions of facial features, trees, homes, anything that a youthful draughtsman would envisage having a go at."
Additionally, when Winslow was 19 years old, his father arranged for him to start an internship with a friend who was a renowned Boston lithographer named John H. Bufford. Homer would later describe these years as a "treadmill life," even though this period represented the closest approach to professional instruction by creating illustrations for popular sheet music. He vowed never to work for anyone else again after completing his apprenticeship in 1857, opened his workshop in Boston, and established a successful freelance career as a commercial artist.
Homer quickly gained notoriety by contributing to Boston and New York publications, but he soon made clear his true ambitions: becoming a painter. Winslow Homer was first exposed to the Civil War's reality through his work as an artist. After the war had been going on for six months, Harper's Weekly sent Homer to the front lines to capture the action. This was a turning point in his creative and psychological development. Homer frequently visited the camps of the Northern forces and sketched various scenes for engravings, from crowded battle scenes to genre settings.
Nevertheless, his work during this time was dominated by his subtly observed depictions of the typical lives of ordinary soldiers. His professional illustrations were eventually built upon these sketches, which now provide a distinctive perspective on the evolving technology of modern warfare, most notably in his series The Army of the Potomac (1862). Homer's wartime sketches continued to serve as the basis for several of his most well-known paintings, including Prisoners from the Front (1866), which helped him become a painter.
These pieces established his reputation as an artist in New York, and he was chosen to participate in the 1866 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Homer produced commercial art despite his popularity up until 1875 when he decided to concentrate on painting in oils and watercolors. (2022)
Homer made the first of his two trips to Europe in 1867, taking his paintings with him, and spent almost a year there. The young American's trip to France occurred during realist art exhibitions by Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet, among others. However, as Cikovsky notes, Homer was more influenced by the Barbizon School and Jean-François Millet, a movement centered on the landscape and became well-known in America in the 1860s.
Homer would have also seen the pre-Impressionist works by Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir while there, which appeared to be just as inspired by the natural effects of light as their American counterparts. Surprisingly, Homer did not exhibit any new works from his travels upon his return to the United States. Still, he did display Prisoners on the Front, the work that, in the words of historian Margaret C. Conrads, "had single-handedly catapulted him to fame in 1866," which was once more on display at the National Academy of Design. Homer's paintings after his return had a distinct American manifestation of modern, democratic ideals mixed in with a sense of nostalgia and innocence.
Even at this early stage, the style of his writing infuriated his contemporaries, some of whom labeled it "unfinished," and it has long frustrated those who attempted to establish a lineage between Homer and earlier masters in the United States or Europe. Homer's well-known adage, "If a man wants to be an artist, he must never look at pictures," captures his pursuit of artistic independence. As a result, Homer happily carried on painting images of rural American life in his distinct style without adopting the aesthetics or urban inclinations of the "advanced" trends in French painting, such as a series of works that featured scenes of rural schoolchildren managed by young school mistresses and insightful genre scenes of African Americans.
Homer's art gained popularity in the 1870s, and in the summer of 1873, while living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he started seriously focusing on watercolor painting. He is still the most significant American painter associated with the medium today. Reviews of his work remained mixed even as his popularity continued to grow.
In 1878, Homer was once more chosen to be among the artists who would represent America at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Homer, typically a private person, developed friendships with other artists while living in France and New York.
Winslow participated in The Tile Club, an artistic group established in 1877 in response to the growing popularity of decorative arts in the United States in the latter half of the 1870s. The club got its name because the group of artists, which included Augustus Saint-Gaudens, William Merritt Chase, Arthur Quartley, and John H. Twachtman, regularly got together, went on painting outings, and contributed artwork on 8-by-8-inch tiles. These friendships did not seem to last beyond Homer's membership in the club, during which time he earned the moniker "The Obtuse Bard," perhaps offering some insight into his character. Homer was active with this group, hosting dinners at his studio and participating in club activities.
Homer significantly reduced his social activities around 1880 in favor of a more sedate existence in small towns, and for the summer, he moved to an island in Gloucester Harbor. Some speculate that this was caused by a series of heartbreaks or other emotional upheavals, but it is impossible to confirm this because Homer was very private. However, the subject matter of his works changed significantly during this period, becoming more dramatic and even brooding. This change in the environment had a significant impact. (The Art Story, n.d.)
As his paintings fetched high prices from museums and he started receiving rent from real estate properties by 1900, Homer had finally achieved financial stability. He also lost the burden of caring for his father, who had passed away two years earlier. Homer kept creating fantastic watercolors while traveling to the Caribbean and Canada.
His later seascapes are especially prized for their beauty and intensity and their dramatic and forceful expression of nature's forces. He occasionally applied the advice he had given to a young painter in 1907: "Leave rocks for your old age—they're easy." during his final ten years.
Homer passed away in his Prouts Neck studio in 1910 at 74. He was buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts' Mount Auburn Cemetery. Homer never taught in a classroom or privately. Still, his paintings had a significant impact on later generations of American painters because of their energetic and direct depictions of man's stoic relationship with an often neutral but occasionally harsh wilderness. (Winslow Homer - Wikipedia, 1910)
The Legacy of Winslow Homer
Homer's works that depict the beauty and mystique of the sea are probably what people will remember most, even though he was once referred to as the "painter of national identity" for his Civil War and genre scenes. His visual account of each location he went to, such as the early seascapes of the East Coast and the vibrant tropical watercolors of the Bahamas, emphasizes the distinctiveness of those locations.
Homer valued direct observation; he once said that "he painted only what he saw." Homer's writings significantly impacted later generations of American painters because of their natural and animated depictions of man's stoic relationship with nature, which was frequently neutral but occasionally harsh and unforgiving. Homer was the most significant American outdoor poet of the nineteenth century.
The last significant seascape by Homer that was still privately owned was Lost on the Grand Banks, which Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates purchased in 1998 for a record $30 million. When Cashmere by John Singer Sargent sold for $11.1 million at Sotheby's auction house in 1996, it set the previous price for an American painting. Gates paid nearly three times that amount. (Winslow Homer - New World Encyclopedia, n.d.)
The Art Story. (n.d.). www.theartstory.org. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://www.theartstory.org/artist/homer-winslow/
Art in context. (2022, April 21). artincontext.org. artincontext.org. https://artincontext.org/winslow-homer/
Winslow Homer - Wikipedia. (1910, September 29). en.wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winslow_Homer
Winslow Homer - New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). www.newworldencyclopedia.org. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Winslow_Homer