Watercolors of Winslow Homer

Watercolors of Winslow Homer


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Winslow Homer's watercolors rank among the greatest pictorial legacies of this country.

Winslow Homer's primary medium was oil painting, although to make ends meet, he did commercial illustration and chronicled the New York City social scene. Eventually, Homer withdrew from city life altogether to settle at Prout's Neck in New England. There he turned to watercolor, in part for financial reasons (they were easier to sell), but also because the newly popular medium enabled him to capture his impressions of scenery and landscapes encountered during his many travels with an immediacy and directness impossible in the more time-consuming oils.

The Watercolors of Winslow Homer offers a lively and beautifully illustrated survey of the artist's work in a medium he pursued with originality and consummate skill. Of his more than 700 watercolors, over 140 are reproduced here, dating from the 1870s to the turn of the century. Divided into ten thematic chapters chronicling Homer's life and artistic progress, the book begins with the delightful paintings he made of children in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and ends with works bathed in the humid atmosphere of the tropics. Along the way readers will discover Homer's unparalleled range of expression, from the somber works he painted along the stormy English coast to the poetic evocations of the Adirondacks forest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393020472
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/28/2001
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 12.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Miles Unger is the former managing editor of Art New England and a frequent contributor to the New York Times as well as other national publications.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Summer at the Shore:
Gloucester, 1873

When Homer set out for the busy fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1873 to find picturesque material to paint in watercolor, he was not entirely unfamiliar with the medium. His work as a commercial illustrator had already given him considerable experience handling water-based media; the drawings that served as the basis for his illustrations were essentially monochrome watercolors executed in line and washes made from white gouache and thinned-out ink. A work like Windy Day, Cullercoats [p. 93], in chalk highlighted with white paint, recalls the drawings Homer was making on his engraving blocks.

    But the summer of 1873 marked Homer's first in-depth exploration of watercolor as an independent form of artistic expression. Over the next couple of years the work in watercolor was closely linked to his commercial illustrations. Many of the early watercolors—including The Berry Pickers, How Many Eggs?, and Waiting for a Bite—led a second life as illustrations for Harper's Weekly, but Homer considered them to be legitimate works of art in their own right and marketed them as such. Despite the fact that he took up watercolor at least in part in the hope of establishing a reliable source of income, he did not simply repeat himself in shifting from one medium to another. Even when using almost identical compositions, he made significant changes that revealed an appreciation for the unique qualities of each. From the beginning he brought to his watercolors a sensibility entirelydifferent from—one might almost say at odds with—his work as a commercial illustrator.

    The Berry Pickers is one of those works that Homer executed as both a watercolor and an engraving. It is a delightful scene that celebrates the simple joys of childhood. A popular contemporary poem by Lucy Larcom describing a similar scene reveals the constellation of ideas that gave these scenes their universal appeal—childhood, health, and the simple pleasures of being in nature:

Red lilies blaze out of the thicket Wild roses blush here and there: There's sweetness in all the breezes, There's health in each breath of air. Hark to the wind in the pine-trees! Hark to the tinkling rill! O, pleasant it is a-berrying In the pastures on the hill!

    Despite the conventional subject matter of the artist's image, he manages to infuse each version with a vitality all its own. A comparison of the engraving with the watercolor on which it is based reveals myriad changes, large and small, that ultimately transform our experience of the scene. The most obvious, and most superficial, is the reversing of the composition that took place when the drawing was turned into an engraving. More important, the scene takes on an entirely different character in the black-and-white version. The overall tone is muted. A lively scene has become static, like an ancient frieze commemorating a timeless childhood ritual. The engraving's success depends on crisply rendered details and abstract linear patterns. The girl in the checked dress that Homer placed in the foreground adds an element of visual interest that compensates for the print's lack of color and atmospheric sparkle.

    In contrast to the engraving, the watercolor The Berry Pickers relies on the apparent spontaneity of its execution. Using bright colors and exploiting the white of the paper, Homer emphasizes light and atmosphere over firm contour and immediacy over studied compositional devices. What in the engraving seems like a rite of summer endlessly repeated is in the watercolor a keenly observed and deeply felt moment without past or future. Whereas the engraving is carefully calibrated, the watercolor represents the artist's immediate response to his surroundings. Through dappled sun and shade, through buds and branches rendered with mere dabs and flicks of the brush as if dancing in the breeze, Homer brings to life the ever-changing scene.

    It is in such unassuming works that the artist began to explore the properties unique to watercolor, explorations that opened up new vistas in his work and, ultimately, expanded the possibilities of the medium itself. He was also capable at this early stage of greater firmness of design and psychological penetration. Although many of these images are lighthearted vignettes of outdoor activities—fishing, picnicking, digging for clams, or searching for swallows' eggs—others strike a more introspective note. Boy in a Boatyard [p. 39] is a composition startling for its abstract geometry—the slashing diagonal of the white sail playing off the roundness of the empty barrel—and sense of melancholy. The boy, his face hidden in shadow beneath his straw hat, is the first of many images Homer will create throughout his career of solitary figures lost in silent revery.

    Many of the Gloucester watercolors feature children looking out to sea, anticipating the more explicitly tragic narratives of the Cullercoats paintings from the decade to follow. In Watching the Harbor [pp. 28-29], a work painted largely in opaque gouache, a young boy looks expectantly over the water. Is he awaiting the return of his father's ship or perhaps merely dreaming of a time when he will be old enough to sail himself to distant shores? Typically, Homer sets up a strong but open-ended narrative. Though we cannot know the thoughts that fill the boy's head, the daisy-strewn hillside on which he lounges strikes an optimistic chord. In Waiting for Dad, [p. 39] the work's title allows us to share the thoughts of the boy whose face is turned away from us. Homer added a Madonna-like mother and child to the oil painting based on the same composition that transforms this slice of life into a scene with religious and metaphysical overtones. Even in the charming scene Boys Wading, [p. 38] where the figures' gaze is transfixed by some hidden object on the sandy bottom, the mood is contemplative rather than boisterous.

    In fact, despite a superficially carefree atmosphere, there is a wistfulness to many of these images, a sense of longing or anxiety embodied in the motif of a young boy, or boys, staring out into the distance as if into an uncertain future. Watching and waiting are the activities most often depicted in these scenes. An introspective mood, a state of mind not usually associated with a boy's summer, also distinguishes Three Boys on the Shore, and Waiting for the Boats. This last painting in particular, where one boy rests his arm consolingly on the shoulder of his companion, is filled with intimations of mortality. The dangers of the seafaring life, which will become explicit in the watercolors of the 1880s, are only hinted at obliquely, but hope and fear are currents that flow just beneath the placid surface and give all these works a deeper resonance.

    It would not be implausible to view these boys as symbolic representatives of a youthful nation. Like boys everywhere, they are filled with optimism, but these youngsters seem to recognize that they are about to enter uncharted waters. Homer made such metaphorical links explicit in paintings he completed immediately after the Civil War, works like Veteran in a New Field, where the returning soldier lays down the implements of war and picks up those of peace. A similar interpretation seems in order here. For a nation emerging battered but unbroken from the horror of civil war, these images offered an affirmation of innocence regained. But these paintings of idle summer days are not merely escapist. They acknowledge in their wistful tone that troubled times may lie ahead.

    Sailing the Catboat, which served as the basis for the famous oil painting Breezing Up [p. 13], also features young boys staring out to a distant horizon; only here their taut, active postures suggest not anxiety but the excitement of the voyage. They do not wait by the shore but seize the rudder and sail boldly toward the horizon. Hopefulness and a sense of adventure are the keynotes of this work. Significantly, the oil painting dates to 1876, and its buoyant mood may reflect the good feelings engendered by the nation's Centennial. In depicting a boat manned by a youthful crew and speeding before a freshening breeze, Homer perfectly captures the celebratory spirit of a country anxious to put the past behind it and look toward a bright tomorrow.

    Sailing the Catboat reveals as well Homer's mastery of abstract composition. The asymmetry of design, the massing of forms in the foreground to create bold silhouettes, and a preference for diagonal lines, all suggest the influence of Japanese art that was much in vogue in these years on both sides of the Atlantic. The rectilinear grid of the pier that fills the foreground of In Charge of Baby—emphasizing two-dimensional design at the expense of a fully realized illusion of three-dimensional space—likewise recalls the daring contrasts and collapsing perspective used to such great effect by Japanese printmakers like Hiroshige and Hokusai, artists who had an enormous impact as well on the evolution of Impressionism. In works like these, Homer showed himself to be as willing to experiment and as open to non-Western influences as his European colleagues. Despite their distinctly American flavor, Sailing the Catboat and In Charge of Baby come remarkably close to contemporary works by Manet, Degas, and Whistler.

    The Gloucester sojourn of the summer of 1873 was the first of many working vacations in which Homer produced a body of watercolors associated with a particular time and place. Throughout his life, these frequent trips served as a means of relaxation and an opportunity to gather new material for his art. Though he sometimes completed his more ambitious watercolors in the studio far from the original scene, they are intimately linked to his travels and capture the distinctive flavor of the locale that inspired them.

    This summer also marked Homer's deepening involvement with the sea as a subject for his art. Many of his magazine illustrations depict the popular oceanside resorts of the day (see p. 69), as do a few of his early oil paintings, but these watercolors are the first works of art to explore in a concerted way the distinctive rhythms and atmosphere of the sea and the lives of the people along its shore. His focus has shifted in the watercolors from the oceanside resort to the working fishing port. In picturing the world of children Homer avoids confronting some of the harsh realities of the seafaring life, but even as these boys and girls clamber amid the rocks and dunes he intimates that their fate is tied to the unpredictable sea.

    The ocean for Homer was the inspiration for his deepest meditations about mankind's place in the universe. And while the scene in these early watercolors seems relatively benign, there are hints of stormier weather to come. These light-filled images of sea and strand represent Homer's first bold foray into a territory that he will ultimately claim as his own undisputed domain.

Excerpted from The Watercolors of Winslow Homer by Miles Unger. Copyright © 2001 by Miles Unger. Excerpted by permission.

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Watercolors of Winslow Homer 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
bareheart More than 1 year ago
I was so happy to recieve this book, when I ordered it I thought I would be getting an older title (Winslow Homer Watercolors) that I've gotten from the library. This book is recent (2001)and has many more watercolor reproductions than the other book. The reproductions are excellent quality and the writing is great. I think it is also a great value for the price, as I've bought similar artist books that were much more expensive. Perhaps the only area where I might give it a lesser rating is the binding, which I think is of lesser quality than other art books I have and which probably accounts for its lesser price. It is a beautiful and informative book. I am going to get another one and cut it up to use as reference in my studio!
JenniferJuniper More than 1 year ago
I love the art work of Homer, and his paintings are beautifuly laid out here.