Who was Winslow Homer?
Winslow Homer was an American painter whose works in the domain of realism, especially those on the sea, are considered some of the most influential paintings of the late 19th century. He started his career as a freelance illustrator. His oil paintings were immensely expressive. He then became a master of sketches and watercolors. During the American Civil War and afterward, he depicted the strife of war and its grim reality through his paintings. He later settled in his studio in Prouts Neck, near Portland, Maine, and led a reclusive life, mostly focusing on subjects such as the sea and the struggle between man and nature. Some of his most popular paintings were ‘Veteran in a New Field,’ ‘Prisoners from the Front’ (1866), ‘Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)’ (1873–1876), ‘The Life Line,’ and ‘Fog Warning.’ He died in his studio at the age of 74. However, his works continue to be appreciated at various museums, especially those in New York City and Boston. His Prouts Neck studio was later purchased and restored by the ‘Portland Museum of Art.’
Childhood & Early Life
Winslow Homer was born on February 24, 1836, Boston, Massachusetts. He was the second of the three sons of Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer. His parents were descendants of New Englanders.
He was 6 when his parents moved to the Cambridge area of Massachusetts. His mother, Henrietta, was a watercolorist and taught Winslow the basics of painting. His father, Charles, was an aggressive businessman. Winslow grew up with his two brothers, Charles Savage Homer, Jr. and Arthur Benson Homer.
When Winslow was 13, his father shut down his hardware store to try his luck in the California gold rush. After that expedition failed, he went to Europe to earn more money.
At 19, after Winslow graduated high school, he began his career as an apprentice to J. H. Bufford, a Boston-based lithographer. Initially, he copied the works of other artists. However, he soon submitted his own drawings to publications such as ‘Ballou’s Pictorial’ and ‘Harper’s Weekly.
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By 1857, Winslow had become a full-fledged freelancer and had rejected an offer to join ‘Harper's Weekly’ as a regular employee.
In 1859, he moved to New York City, where he continued to work as a freelance illustrator. He launched his own studio in the ‘Tenth Street Studio Building.’ The following year, he showcased his paintings for the first time, at the ‘National Academy of Design.’ He also attended classes at the academy till 1863.
By 1861, he had started working on oil paintings. The same year, Winslow was sent to Virginia by ‘Harper’s Weekly.’ He worked as an editor and design chief for ‘Harper's Weekly’ there and painted war scenes of the American Civil War. Some such paintings were ‘Home, Sweet Home’ (1863), ‘Veteran in a New Field,’ and ‘Prisoners from the Front’ (1866).
Although he had a studio in New York City, he mostly traveled to Pennsylvania, New England, and the Hudson River valley for sketching. Toward the end of 1866, he began a 10 month stay in Paris, France. He then worked in the French countryside.
Following his return to the U.S., he painted masterpieces such as ‘Long Branch, New Jersey’ (1869) and ‘Snap the Whip’ (1872). The former depicted ladies walking along the seashore and the latter showed children playing in a meadow. His oil paintings, gradually, became larger, with solitary figures as their subjects. He mostly painted women.
Artistic Growth & Watercolor Paintings
In 1873, Winslow began experimenting with watercolor. During this time, he created paintings such as ‘Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)’ (1873–1876).
Although his works were markedly different from those of other French painters, he did share a few traits with the artists of the region. He included natural lighting and imagery in his works and also made use of simple strokes. By 1875, he had carved a niche in the domain of watercolors and had created some masterpieces of realism.
Following his return to Virginia, his paintings depicted the dark ambience of the post-war era. His ‘A Visit from the Old Mistress’ (1876) depicted four freed slaves meeting their former mistress.
By 1880, he became a recluse of sorts. In 1881, he went to England, where he spent 2 years working in Cullercoats, a fishing port on the North Sea. He was around 45 then. He was amazed at how hard the fishermen and their families worked to support themselves. He mostly depicted the tough women of the town, repairing the nets and catering to their men, in watercolors. He left the town in 1882.
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Following his return to America in 1883, the sea was featured as the main theme in his works. He then traveled to Prouts Neck, a fishing village on the southern coast of Portland, Maine. He traveled to other places in the US a few times but mostly spent time at his studio. He also predominantly created watercolor paintings during thjs time. He liked working in isolation and mostly painted the struggle of man against nature.
In the summer of 1883, Winslow was inspired by a demonstration of a breeches buoy for sea rescues, in Atlantic City. In 1884, he painted ‘The Life Line,’ one of his most popular paintings on the theme of rescue, depicting an unconscious woman being moved from a wrecked ship to the sea shore.
In the ensuing years, he depicted the sea more than the activities on the sea shore. A trip to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, Canada, where he spent time with a fishing fleet, inspired him. His 1885 work ‘Fog Warning’ showed a lonely fisherman amidst a foggy setting, probably planning to get back home. At the same time, Winslow also created a few bright watercolor paintings during his trips to Canada and the Caribbean.
By 1890, he had created many contemporary pieces with fluid meaning, which became popular with his admirers. In his 1891 painting ‘Huntsman and Dogs,’ he showed a young hunter who probably enjoyed killing for sport.
In ‘The Fox Hunt’ (1893), he depicted a fox looking for food in a snow-covered terrain, while a few starved black crows were shown planning to attack him. His ‘Northeaster’ (1895) depicted the struggle between the sea and the rocky shore.
His ‘The Gulf Stream’ (1899) showed a black man on a small sailboat tattered by a hurricane. Winslow depicted the helplessness of man amidst the ruthless forces of nature, showing sharks circling the boat and a boat on the horizon passing by without noticing.
Personal Life, Death & Legacy
He breathed his last on September 29, 1910, at his Prouts Neck studio. He was 74 at the time of his death.
In his final years, he continued to paint in isolation, mostly depicting the sea and venturing toward abstraction.
His works still continue to live in the museums of New York City and Boston. In the early 21st century, his studio in Prouts Neck was bought by the ‘Portland Museum of Art’ in Portland, Maine, and then restored. In 2012, it was opened to the public.