Winslow Homer was in his forties when he began to create some of the most beautiful watercolor paintings the world has ever seen.
Homer’s mother, Henrietta, was a talented watercolorist who painted nature studies and whose works were the only paintings by another artist he ever collected and hung in his studio in Prouts Neck, Maine.
Henrietta recognized Homer’s artistic talent and was his first teacher, but it wasn’t until he was in his forties that Homer began to master the art of watercolor.
Winslow Homer’s Illustrations
Homer began his professional career, straight out of high school, as an apprentice for a commercial lithographer, then moved to New York, with the hope of getting some formal art training.
He worked as a magazine illustrator and was sent, by Harper’s Weekly to follow troops engaged in the Civil War. Many of the poignant drawings that Homer did during that time became studies for his oil and watercolor paintings. Homer’s empathic view of the war, as a tragic and difficult undertaking for young soldiers, is apparent in his work.
Homer drew The Empty Sleeve at Newport as an illustration for a Harper’s Weekly story about a soldier, who lost an arm in battle, and returns home from the Civil War to discover that his wife has learned to drive their horse and buggy, something that women did not usually do in the nineteenth century, especially not with their husbands as passengers. Because of his skill as an illustrator, Homer was able to capture the tension between husband and wife as they struggle to navigate their new post-war roles.
Even Homer’s oil painting of Rush’s Lancer’s, which he sketched during the war and did not do in oils until 1886, conveys a sense of bravery and determination in the midst of hardship and chaos.
Homer’s Mid-Life Crisis
During his twenty years as an illustrator, Homer never received the accolades he deserved, did not have a chance to pursue formal studies and just managed to eek out a living.
Homer had the moral and financial support of his older brother, Charles, who had studied science at Harvard and made a fortune when he developed a formula for boat varnish. Homer’s younger brother was the successful owner of a lumber yard, which left Homer, nearing forty, considering giving up art work altogether.
In 1873, Homer spent the summer living on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester, Massachusetts with the lighthouse keeper and his family and began to work on his watercolor technique. His first attempts were more like sketches filled in with paint but, with time, his watercolors became fine and elegant.
He spent two years in the English coastal village of Cullercoats, where he painted the wives of local fishermen. The men of the village would fish all night and be met by their wives when they returned in the morning. While the men slept, the women would get on a train, take the catch to sell at inland markets and return before the fishermen went back out for another night at sea.
The watercolors that Homer painted during, and after, this period moved his work into a strong and masterful style.
When Homer returned to the States, after his two-year stay in England, he moved to his family’s estate in Prouts Neck. He became caretaker of his father and painted in his studio, overlooking the sea. He was able to spend summers in Florida or the Bahamas, where continued to paint, finally to critical acclaim.
Homer enjoyed walking through the Prouts Neck property, fishing and, of course, painting. “The sun never sets,” he wrote towards the end of his life, “without my notice, or thanks.”
Winslow Homer at Surovek
Please contact us for more information about Rush’s Lancers, Tree Across the Trail or any of the other fine art work by Winslow Homer available at Surovek.
Elizabeth Johns Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation University of California Press, 2002