Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation

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With close analysis of Homer's art and of the personal challenges he faced throughout his life, Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation is the most comprehensive study to date of the relationship between the artist's work and the psychological stages of his life. Elizabeth Johns uses theories advanced by Erik Erikson and Daniel Levinson to look at Homer's evolution as a painter and a person within the context of the continuing dynamics of his family. Her incisive and absorbing readings of the artist's work take into account the developmental stages of young, middle, and late adulthood, analyzing what Homer painted at the various turning points in his life.

With this psychosocial approach, Johns examines the wood-engraved illustrations of Homer's early career in relationship to the values of his family; his images of the Civil War in the context of his young manhood; his paintings of the social scene and young women's place in it in connection with his own potential for marriage; his images of fisherwomen at Cullercoats and fishermen at Prout's Neck as they relate to his interior vision during middle age; and his intrigue with the sea in his late works as an identification with the larger processes of the universe. With more than seventy-five black-and-white illustrations and forty color plates of arresting images by this American master, Winslow Homer takes into account all available documentation, including the rich trove of the artist's correspondence at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and his entire body of work—illustrations for wood engravings, watercolors, and oils.

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Editorial Reviews

Carol Troyen
Elizabeth Johns's biography of Homer revolutionizes our understanding of this well-known yet enigmatic artist. Arguing that "the themes [Homer] pursued come from his life, " Johns uses Erik Erikson's theories of identity and life cycle to frame her investigation of Homer's personal choices-choices revealed in his correspondence with his family, his relationship with other artists, and the social expectations of his milieu. Through this sensitive and elegantly written book, we come to know, even identify with, Homer's developmental journey, and so appreciate more fully the magnificent achievement of his art.
Jules David Prown
Johns's eloquent evocation of the spiritual dimension of Homer's great late paintings achieves her goal of reintroducing 'faith in the transcendent' [into] scholarly discourse.
H. Barbara Weinberg
Once again Elizabeth Johns has created a paradigm shift in our understanding of one of America's greatest painters. Peering behind the curtain that Homer drew over his private life, Johns offers a bracing, provocative, and sensitive reading of his works in light of his personal journey and his relations with his close-knit family. Her vast knowledge, profound insight, and breathtaking originality illuminate every page.
Library Journal
Esteemed author Johns (emerita, history of art, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life) manages to separate this work from the pack of scholarship on quintessential American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) by analyzing his life and work from the perspective of developmental psychology. In doing so, she eloquently and caringly traces Homer's art across the psychoanalytical lines of a man evolving from young to middle to late adulthood. Using the developmental theories of Erik Erikson and Daniel Levinson and drawing heavily from Homer's correspondence and the critical responses to his work, Johns offers insight into aspects of Homer's life that informed his art. Johns's analysis cover Homer's illustrations as well as his oil and watercolor paintings but focuses on over 100 images that represent turning points in his life-images that reveal the development of Homer as a person. Though art historians may not agree with all of her interpretations, it is obvious that Johns has opened up new avenues for Homer scholarship. Recommended for academic and museum libraries.-Kraig A. Binkowski, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520227255
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/7/2002
  • Series: Ahmanson Murphy Fine Arts Book Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 226
  • Sales rank: 820,572
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Johns is Professor Emerita of History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania and Lilly Fellow, Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture, College of the Holy Cross. She is the author of American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life (1991) and Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life (1983).

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Read an Excerpt



University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22725-5

Chapter One


In the work of Erikson, Levinson, and others, and in our common experience, midlife presents more challenges than we might have imagined. As early as the late thirties but more typically at about forty, we may suddenly realize that we have already lived more than half our lives. That realization can bring on a crisis if the dreams of youth and the ambitions of early adulthood are as yet unfulfilled. In midlife we come to terms with the fit between our material achievements and our emotional lives, reassessing our careers and accepting or modifying the companionship we might enjoy henceforth. We may reevaluate family expectations and our comparisons of ourselves with our siblings. If we look at Homer's departure from New York with these points in mind, we can imagine that he met the onset of midlife with a mixture of anxiety over his disappointments, courage to abandon the life he had established in New York, and hope that he had found a new direction.

After his ship docked in Liverpool, Homer stayed briefly in London. Then he headed to Cullercoats, a fishing village just north of Tynemouth on the northern coast. Although we do not know just why Homer chose this particular village, Cullercoats had an artist colony since the 1820s and was gaining popularity as a summer resort for English families from London. In a place dominated by the ocean, the villagers lived in and out of fog and gale winds for much of the year. The winters were frigid: the sea churned continuously and devastating storms struck without warning. Unlike other shores Homer knew, this one, with the rhythms and unpredictability of its ocean, provided recreation only grudgingly. Instead it offered sustenance, and it brought death: the villagers who made their living from the sea died in its fierce storms. Was this why Homer chose Cullercoats in the first place? Was this why he stayed when he had found it-to see hard realities he had not known? Unswayed by the rush of other artists to the pleasant fields of northern Holland and Brittany or the drenched sunlight of southern France, he settled in to live, work, and make his friends on this cold shore of the harsh North Sea.

The robustness of the women in Cullercoats attracted Homer immediately. An article in the Magazine of Art in 1882 described their labor: "The women are the working bees. Stout, hardy creatures, with petticoats of blue flannel, and such common agreement in their style of dress as to seem as if they wore a uniform; they stand on the beach in the morning fully equipped for a hasty journey to town. When the boats come in, the men hand the fish over the side and then lounge carelessly home. The women then divide the catch according to the share of the boat which is owned by their 'men,' and, swinging their laden creels on their backs, trudge off to the nearest station, to spend the day in hawking fish from door to door." A later commentator described Homer's attraction to these women: "Of course the fishermen themselves were an exciting group to portray, but Homer sensed more poetic beauty in the robust fisherwomen who were continuously engaged helping to beach the cobles, landing the catch, sorting it, placing a heavy load in their creels, and then, with a creel slung on their shoulder and a basket on their arm, climbing the steep slope and travelling along and on to the train and away some ten miles or so to adjoining towns to hawk the morning catch of fresh fish."

Women had been fundamental to Homer's emotional life in his earlier career, and they were to be so here. Their attractiveness for him was both cultural and personal. One can imagine the impact of their physicality on so small, slender, and fastidious a man. They presented every contrast imaginable to his own person and to the social class of his family and his viewers. Brawny, smelling of fish, weighing as much as two hundred pounds, with enormous physical strength and endurance, they must have seemed astonishing. A few years before Homer arrived, a group of them had saved the crew of a ship in devastating weather, dragging "the life-boat, in a blinding storm of snow and sleet, three miles along the coast to the rescue of the crew of a ship wrecked near St. Mary's Island." Tested psychologically by the harsh realities of the sea, they were the female counterparts of the fishermen Homer had known at Gloucester, unpretentiously close to the grain of life.

Homer had shifted his attention from the life of the genteel to that of the earthy-from the work of the parlor and garden to that of the earth and sea. He reveled in the women's distinctiveness, telling friends in Cullercoats that he had come there to work because of them. The American girls who had dominated his work, he saw as all alike. But the bodies and costumes of these Cullercoats fishwives awed him. "'Look at the fishergirls ... in this picture I am painting; there are none like them in my country in dress, feature or form. Observe the petticoat that girl is wearing,' pointing with his brush at the one to which he referred, 'No American girl could be found wearing a garment of that colour or fashioned in that style.'" Perhaps Homer sought and found in these women, in watching their daily routines, in talking with them while they posed for him, and in being aware of the tragic events they endured, the exteriorization of qualities he was coming to recognize as necessary for his own survival.

Village life restored his sociability. He matter-of-factly brought with him to the village the elegant clothes in which he had gone about his work even in his apprenticeship. Cullercoats residents commented on them, and before long, he exchanged his "short-tailed coat and high silk hat" for the garb of the villagers, "a fisherman's blue woollen jersey and a nondescript felt hat." His earlier affability blossomed again, along with the sense of humor that had always endeared him to family and friends. The fisherman A. B. Adamson, who had known Homer in Cullercoats, reported that he liked to talk, was good at billiards and would play with the villagers, occasionally danced, and was "an inveterate smoker ... [with a] preference for a pipe." "He had quite a fund of humorous stories at his command and never displayed any hesitancy in their narration. In turn he seemed to enjoy listening to a good story well told." On occasion, Adamson remembered with pleasure, Homer "would really unbend and act with the spirit of a school boy."

Once again filled with hope and spirit, Homer picked out the women when he went to work with his pencil and his brush, translating into sketches the noise and bustle on the Cullercoats shore at dawn when the fishermen came in and their wives and daughters gathered in the night's catch. Always, he looked toward the sea: the human activity takes place against, and in, the drama of the North Sea. In even his early Cullercoats images the sky and fog and atmosphere and sea and light have an enveloping quality. Within it the people stand out, their bodies and the details made clear with pencil-hair reflects light, clothing is blown about, red neckerchiefs are prominent, the shoes are worn, the bodies are solid. At first, Homer made the figures slender and delicate, like the women he had drawn on Boston streets and upstate New York farms. In Four Fisherwives (1881; see Plate 16), for instance, the young girls with their baskets, one with a child on her back, walk across the middle ground of the shore, the turmoil of beached boats and busy men and women in the background subordinated to their imposing presence. The beach is wet, covered with pools of water-perhaps the tide has just gone out or rain fallen-and clouds scuttle across the sky. The dominant gray of the picture is interrupted only by the white of the young women's aprons and the red of their neck gear and scarves. Homer depicted young women in their quiet daytime activity too, in such watercolors as Mending the Nets (1882; National Gallery of Art, Washington), in which somewhat sturdier women with unforgettable profiles concentrate on repair work. And he caught the stress of the entire community in response to disaster. In Perils of the Sea (1881, Fig. 57), the fishermen gather during a fierce storm to devise a plan to rescue colleagues not yet returned. The skies are almost black; the sea is boiling. In the foreground, on the walk above the rescue station, are two women, their faces pinched, their eyes fixed on the distance, sisters to the American women who had waited out the perils of their husbands and brothers and sons in the Civil War.

Homer soon moved beyond his preoccupation with the youth of some of the Cullercoats wives, capturing in many of his images what souvenir tourist photographs revealed: the large angular bodies, sharp facial lines, and hard skin of the middle-aged fishwives. No longer a young man, he attended now to the strains of living through several decades. In Fishwives (1883; see Plate 17), for instance, he paid tribute to the stalwart power of three women who seem to be in their middle years: against a lowering sky and blowing wind, they plant their feet in the wet sand. Two of them look out to a boat fighting the wind; the other, hands on her hips and a basket on her back, faces into the fierceness as though alone. With only a few washes of color, Homer drew these women's bodies, the water, the clouds, and the shore into a sturdy complementarity. They respond to nature's force with their own.

At midlife, attuned to the inexorable elements of his own life-circumstances he had challenged and realized he could not control-Homer did not sentimentalize the harshness of these villagers' lives. Unlike some of the local artists who created heart-rending images of poverty and distress, Homer simply presented this harshness and gave the results to his viewers to ponder. For instance, soon after arriving in Cullercoats, he witnessed a major wreck and its aftermath. A ship had foundered off the coast, and in gale conditions rescuers risked their own lives to bring safely ashore the crew and the wife of the ship's captain. Unknowingly, however, they left one person onboard. Witnesses remembered that when Homer heard about the wreck, he ran to the beach to witness and sketch the entire rescue. He chose in his picture to depict the moment when, the rescuers, having realized their oversight, once again launched the boat into the stormy sea toward the lone figure on the deck of the Iron Crown frantically waving to attract attention. Earlier, Homer had depicted men struggling to secure the sails on a tossing ship and, in another image, "The Wreck of the 'Atlantic'-Cast Up by the Sea" (Harper's Weekly, April 26, 1873), a woman lying dead on the shore. Now, a larger meaning of the human endeavor struck him: his watercolor The Wreck of the "Iron Crown" (Fig. 58) imparts at once the deadly danger of the sea and the human imperative to rescue.

On this shore of the North Sea Homer saw more clearly than ever before the tragedy that is integral to life and the generous human response to it that enables those who suffer to endure. The accessibility of life at Cullercoats to watercolor studies that also conveyed some of that life's mysteries encouraged him to stay on after the summer. Having experienced Gloucester only in the relatively benign summer season, he remained in Cullercoats through harsher months and perhaps learned the most there from autumn and winter tempests.

During the winter of 1882 and the succeeding months, Homer began to extend what he had first tested in his watercolors at Gloucester-a fluid, dynamic materiality-this time with fully developed figures. His pictures convey the heavy moisture of the atmosphere in which he breathed and saw and sketched, the feel of the wind against the cheek; for viewers who have visited a fishing village, they even intimate the aroma of salt and fish. He created the figures with a linear confidence that seems simply to have been waiting to be called on. In his illustrations and then his early watercolors over drawings, he had presented bodies and fences, trees and rocks with an experienced eye. At Cullercoats, however, he picked out the very heft of his models, their weight against the sand, their heavy clothing whipped about in the wind. He gave the women the solidity of sculpture, and each watercolor has the rhythm and design of an intricately planned oil painting. Over guidelines of pencil, his washes of grays and dark blues seem to rush over the paper like the fast-running currents offshore and the swift-moving clouds in the sky. He lifted the ground of his pictures-the white paper itself-right into his image. Rather than figure against ground, or figure becoming part of ground, ground became one with figure. Both participated equally in the ongoing life of the universe.

In these lovingly designed bodies, Homer gave muscle and flesh to women as he had never done before. Perhaps he was able to register their physicality because he was away from "home," and the women were not his neighbors, cousins, or fellow citizens. He had never been inattentive to women's bodies, reveling in the delicacy of his women in gardens in the 1870s, but in painting the Cullercoats fisherwomen, Homer perhaps discovered his own very physical presence. He too was flesh. And in the Cullercoats women he may have seen what he was coming to realize was his own role. They-and he-were the worriers, the supporters, those who observed what they loved. The work he had chosen as an artist depended on his being an active observer, a register, a part of the community but in some ways apart from it, as though, like the women, he lived in a separate sphere of obligation and meaning. Did the Cullercoats women also suggest to him a plot of women's lives-an emotional course, a physical cycle-that he had not seen so clearly before and that somehow illuminated the plot of his own?

With impressive results accumulating from what engaged him at every level of his being, and surely buoyed by the friendly Cullercoats community, Homer regained confidence in his potential as a businessman. Like his brothers, he thought of his work as business, not distinct from his work as artist, but at its foundation. He sent instructions to his dealer, J. Eastman Chase, in New York. First establishing contact with Chase in September 1881, he wrote in October with his characteristically concise humor: "My dear sir: By Dec. 1st I will send you some watercolors-large size & price." He followed through, putting into Chase's hands thirty watercolors, accompanying them with an invoice and directions to "put them before the public in any way that you think best ... in a portfolio-or have an exhibition."

Homer had also been scouting the art market in England and had found a picture he was quite sure was by Corot that he thought Chase might be able to sell.


Excerpted from WINSLOW HOMER by ELIZABETH JOHNS Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: The Nature of Observation

1. The Artist as a Young Man
2. The Search for a Subject, the Search for a Career
3. The Nature of Midlife
4. "The Life That I Have Chosen"



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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2005

    Insightful Adjunct to the Art of Winslow Homer

    Considered by most art historians to be one of the more important American artists, Winslow Homer was essentially self-taught and that fact informs his prolific span of works as much from the progressive technical maturity of his paintings and drawings as from the intuitive approach to his subjects that, at time, 'over-schooling' can flatten. Elizabeth Johns has written an engrossing study of how Homer's life and psychological development are evident in the various stages of his work. Never cloying or intrusive in demeanor, Johns intertwines facts gleaned from correspondence and from criticism and Homer's responses to same to paint her own portrait of a man at odds with the world in some ways and in other ways as an integral observer of such phenomena as his passion for the sea. Johns' writing is so facile that the book could comfortably exist without illustration, but add to the power of her writing the fine reproductions of both black and white and richly colored plates of Homer's paintings and this becomes a book that will satisfy even those who have questioned Homer's importance in American art history. A fine read. Grady Harp

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2010

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