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Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer


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Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24th February, 1836. When he was nineteen he was apprenticed as to the lithographic firm of John Bufford. In 1859 he moved to New York where he worked as a freelance illustrator.

On the outbreak of the American Civil War Homer was sent by Harper's Weekly, to draw pictures of the fighting. He observed the battle of Bull Run before accompanying the Army of the Potomac during its Peninsula Campaign. He also drew pictures of the siege of Petersburg.

During the war Homer developed a reputation for realism and this was reinforced with paintings such as, In Front of Yorktown, Playing Old Soldier, A Rainy Day in Camp and A Skirmish in the Wilderness. His best known picture during this period, was the highly acclaimed, Prisoners from the Front (1866).

Although Homer owned a studio in New York he travelled widely, including in the Deep South, where he painted The Cotton Pickers (1876) and The Carnival (1877).

After living in Tynemouth, a small fishing village in England (1881-82) he returned to the United States and settled at Prouts Neck, on the coast of Maine. Over the next year he concentrated on seascapes such as The Gulf Stream (1899), Moonlight - Wood's Island Light (1886), Northeaster (1895) and Early Morning After a Storm at Sea (1902).

Winslow Homer died on 29th September, 1910.


Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer would hate this biography. When his first biographer, a Boston art critic named William Howe Downes, contacted him for an interview, Homer replied:

“It may seem ungrateful to you that after your twenty-five years of hard work in booming my pictures that I should not agree with you in regard to that proposed sketch of my life. But I think that it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear, and as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it.”

Winslow Homer was a private man, and with good reason. His entrance to the art world came at a time when American art was struggling for international recognition, and after a metioric rise to success, Homer was both lauded as a heroic American painter, and attacked by critics who expected him to define a new era of national art.

But, despite his reticence, let’s talk about the artist’s life. Homer was born in Boston in 1836, and raised by his stoic mother after his father moved to Europe chasing a series of get-rich-quick schemes. Homer’s mother taught him to use watercolors, and imparted her dry wit and quiet nature. At 19, Homer was apprenticed to a lithographer, and developed a freelance illustration practice on the side. In 1861, Homer’s illustration commissions for Harpers magazine took him to the front lines of the American Civil War, and to his first taste of professional success. Back in his studio, Homer turned to oils to commemorate his experience on the front. His works Prisoners from the Front, and Home, Sweet Home, were shown at the National Academy of Design to an incredible response. Winslow Homer was on his way to success.

Brutal expectations

After the war, Homer continued his illustration for for Harpers, while shifting his painting towards a more pastoral setting, and critics started leaning in. Homer’s name had become attached to American Art, and expectations mounted. His portrait of young women at a beach, Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts, was called ‘trifling’ and of questionable taste. Cerney-la-Ville–French Farm, and Rocky Coast and Gulls were called unfinished. Perhaps feeling the pressure to paint more ‘American’ subjects, Homer painted The Country School, which seemed to meet the critical expectation. Despite the volume of critical noise, paintings from Homer’s middle career show very little evolution. Even a year in Paris saw little influence on his quiet, straightforward style. Perhaps because Homer purposely avioded influence — as his fellow painter Eugene Benson quoted him as saying “artists should never look at pictures, but should stutter in a language of their own.”

A mature style

In the end it was nature that would change Homer’s work. In 1881, Homer turned 45 years old, and moved to the English coastal town of Cullercoats. He worked in cold sober tones in watercolor. His subjects were the hardy souls who wrung a living from the sea. His pastoral scenes are replaced by struggle carried on broad shoulders, and the isolated dignity of survival. It was a radical change. Homer’s work had transcended nationalistic expectation, and on his return to America critics were swept away by his new work. “He is a very different Homer from the one we knew in days gone by, his pictures touch a far higher plane. They are works of High Art.”

Homer’s new muse was the sea, and he adopted a hermit’s life, living in Prouts Neck, Maine, in a carrage-house just 75 feet from the ocean. He would stay by the ocean until his death in 1910, living frugally, and making work that were hymns to the implacible power of nature. Homer’s work had in fact achieved what the art world expected of him — a quintessentially American voice — but only after he found the quiet courage of solutide.


Winslow Homer - Biography and Legacy

Winslow Homer was born to Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer in Boston, Massachusetts, the middle child of three sons. The family moved when young Winslow was six years of age to the nearby rural town of Cambridge. His mother was an amateur watercolorist who taught her artistic son the rudiments of her craft their shared affinity for the arts fostered a close relationship that lasted throughout their lives. His father, on the other hand, was a largely-failed businessman and, in the words of art historian and curator Nicolai Cikovsky, an eccentric in "behavior and appearance." He was, nevertheless, supportive of his son's artistic ambitions. As Cikovsky details in the exhibition catalogue for the comprehensive 1995 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., "He also encouraged his son's 'leaning towards art' by acquiring for him, on a business trip to England, such resources for artistic self-help as 'a complete set of lithographs by Julian [sic] - representations of heads, ears, noses, eyes, faces, trees, houses, everything that a young draughtsman might fancy trying to make his hand at." Additionally, it was his father who arranged the hopeful artist with an apprenticeship to an acquaintance John H. Bufford, a prominent commercial lithographer in Boston, when Winslow reached 19 years of age.

Although this period represents the closest experience resembling any formal training, creating illustrations for popular sheet music, Homer would later describe these two years as merely a "treadmill existence." At the end of his apprenticeship in 1857, Homer swore never to work for anyone again, opened his own studio in Boston and established a successful freelance career as a commercial illustrator. Although Homer quickly gained stature, creating works for magazines like Ballou's Pictorial and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in Boston, as well as the influential Harper's Weekly in New York, he would soon reveal his true ambition: to become a painter.

Accordingly, in 1859, Homer moved to New York which was by then a major center of both publishing and artistic activity, where fierce rivalry between the legacy of the older generation of Hudson River School artists confronted the new trends imported from Europe. Shortly after establishing his studio in the city, Homer enrolled in classes at the National Academy of Design in the fall of that same year. As Cikovsky details, "Sometime early in 1861, he took a month of lessons from Frederick Rondel (a Boston artist whom he may already have known), who once a week, on Saturdays, taught him how to handle his brush, set his palette, & etc." Homer took additional classes at the academy in 1863, but credits his primary instruction, not to a specific mentor, but the study of nature. For the young artist, Europe beckoned as the next logical step to hone his developing skills, but the escalation of the US Civil War put such plans on hold.

Early Career

Winslow Homer's early career as a freelance illustrator brought him into direct contact with the realities of the Civil War. Within six months of the war's outbreak, Harper's Weekly assigned Homer to cover the war from the front lines, which proved a turning point in his personal and artistic development. During Homer's multiple visits to the camps of the Northern troops, he produced numerous studies for engravings ranging from genre scenes to crowded scenes of conflict. Yet, it was his nuanced depictions of the everyday lives of the common soldiers which dominate his oeuvre from this period. These sketches later formed the basis of his commercial illustrations and today also provide a unique view into the changing technologies of modern warfare, most notably in The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp Shooter on Picket Duty (1862). During this time, Homer also made his "professional debut" as a painter with great success at the annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design in 1863 with two paintings, Home, Sweet Home and The Last Goose at Yorktown, both focused on the daily life of Union soldiers.

After the war's end, Homer's wartime sketches continued to inform a series of paintings, most notably Veteran in a New Field (1865) and Prisoners on the Front (1866), which secured his reputation as an artist and remain among his best-known paintings to this day. These works secured his artistic reputation in New York with the latter also chosen to represent the United States at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1866. Even with this success, Homer continued to make commercial works until 1875, at which point oil painting and watercolor became Homer's primary occupations.

Mature Period

In 1867, Homer traveled with his painting to France for the first of his two trips to Europe, and lived in Paris for nearly a year. The young American's stay in France coincided with exhibitions of works by Realist artists like Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet. However, as Cikovsky points out, Homer found greater inspiration in Jean-François Millet and The Barbizon School, a landscape-oriented movement that also gained popularity in America in the 1860s. During his stay, Homer would also have seen the pre-Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir who seemed as equally compelled by the natural effects of light as their American counterpart.

Upon returning to the United States, surprisingly, Homer did not exhibit new paintings from his time abroad, yet he did show, in the words of historian Margaret C. Conrads, "Prisoners on the Front, the canvas that had single-handedly catapulted him to fame in 1866," which again went on view at the National Academy of Design.

In fact, there was a sense of nostalgia and innocence mixed in with a distinctly American manifestation of modern, democratic ideals that characterized the paintings created by Homer upon his return. The style of his work, even in this early period, irritated critics of his day, some of whom described it as "unfinished," and has long frustrated anyone seeking to create a lineage between Homer and earlier masters in either the United States or Europe. A well-known saying by Homer encapsulates his goal of artistic independence: "If a man wants to be an artist, he must never look at pictures." Accordingly, Homer readily continued to paint images of rural American life in his unique style, including a series of works that depicted scenes of rural schoolchildren run by young school mistresses and insightful genre scenes of African Americans, without adopting the aesthetics or urban inclinations of the "advanced" trends in French painting.

Homer's work gained traction during the 1870s, and during the summer of 1873 while in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Homer began to devote serious attention to painting with watercolors for which he remains the greatest American painter associated with the medium through today.

Throughout the steady rise of his popularity, critical reception of his work remained mixed. Of his works in the 1876 Centennial Exposition, one independent critic wrote, "We frankly confess that we detest his subjects. he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial," while a write up in The New York Tribune praised his originality: "There is no picture in this exhibition, nor can we remember when there has been a picture in any exhibition, that can be named alongside this."

In 1878, Homer was again included with a group of artists selected to represent America at the Exposition Universelle in Paris where, as Margaret C. Conrad explains: "European critic's responses reiterated the commonly accepted hallmarks of Homer's Americanness: his subjects, spirit of originality, simple-heartedness, honesty (though considered gauche by some), truth of sentiment and treatment, and strong local character."

Although usually described as a private person, Homer's time in both France and New York included camaraderie with his fellow artists. In the later 1870s, he participated in The Tile Club, an artistic society founded in 1877 responding to the burgeoning popularity of decorative arts in the United States. The group of artists, including painters William Merritt Chase, Arthur Quartley, John H. Twachtman and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, frequently met, went on painting excursions, and would each contribute paintings on an 8-by-8-inch tile, hence the club's name. While active with this group, including hosting dinners at his studio, these relationships did not seem to last beyond Homer's membership in the club, during which he earned the nickname, "The Obtuse Bard," perhaps providing some insight into his character.

Around 1880, Homer became markedly more reclusive, removing himself from urban social life for a quieter life in small towns, moving to an island in Gloucester Harbor for the summer. Some speculate this had to do with a series of heartbreaks or other such emotional turmoil, though such conjecture remains impossible to confirm as Homer kept his private life quite guarded. As he reportedly once told to a potential biographer, "It would probably kill me to have such a thing appear - and as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it." Regardless, this shift in environment had a significant impact on the subject-matter of his works, which grew increasingly dramatic and even brooding during this period.

Later Period

The first place Homer went after leaving the hustle-and-bustle of New York was the remote fishing village of Cullercoats in Northumberland, England, where he lived from 1881 to 1882. In his essay titled A Process of Change, Franklin Kelly, a historian of American and British art, described, "Virtually every writer who has had anything to say about Homer since 1882 has regarded the trip to England as a critical turning point in his career, one demarcating his early years, with all their promise, from his mature career, when he would bring to his art a new level of intensity and purpose." His subjects in Cullercoats, often portrayed in watercolor, shifted toward the working classes, most often the fishermen and women whose lives were both separated and united by the sea. Homer simultaneously captured the atmospheric fog-lined shore while depicting scenes in an unemotional manner that leads art historians to read the works from this period as representations of the daily heroism of common laborers. Others, such as English writer and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith look to an objective "photographic influence" in Homer's work with "an emphasis on simple, static and often silhouetted forms." When he returned to the United States and exhibited these works in New York, critics noted the differences between these and his earlier paintings: "He is a very different Homer from the one we knew in days gone by," now his pictures "touch a far higher plane. They are works of High Art."

Although Homer would continue to show his work in New York for the rest of his career, he chose not to live in the city upon returning to American. Instead, as Helen S. Cooper notes, "The need for isolation that had led Homer to spend over a year and a half in Cullercoats remained with him in America. He found an appropriate environment in Prout's Neck, a rocky peninsula on the coast of Maine, ten miles south of Portland." The move north was first made by his younger brother Arthur, who was the first to visit the region on his honeymoon in 1875, and continued to summer there in the following years. In 1883, the family invested in property, including Winslow who had intended to likewise summer at the property but upon the death of his mother the following year, took up permanent residence in a small cottage where he also set up his studio.

The artist had visited the secluded region for nearly a decade before relocating to spend the rest of his life in Prout's Neck, where his closest relationships were his brother Charles, and his sister-in-law Mattie. Homer bought the carriage house of the main house which belonged to his brother, where he built his artist studio with a view looking beyond the rocky cliffs to the sea. During this period, his most famous paintings might suggest a life of solitude and forebearance. However, Homer is known to have regularly traveled far from the frigid northern shores of Prout's Neck for the warmer climes of Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Florida during the winter months, capturing the distinct aura of the tropical climate in a series of watercolor paintings and sketches. However, upon return to his studio set above the rocky seaside cliffs, Homer would return to his relentless explorations of the sea.

At the age of 74, Winslow Homer passed away in Prout's Neck in 1910.

The Legacy of Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer is widely considered one of the foremost American painters of the nineteenth century. His work figured importantly in developing an American artistic sensibility at a time when European influences were the topic of much debate by artists and critics in the United States. His resolute independence was a source of influence for those of his own time. As noted by art historian Matthew Baigell in A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture, "Homer and Eakins transformed genre painting and portraiture into strong statements of personal sensibility and in their late works discovered an America that impressionist pleasantries and American renaissance escapism entirely overlooked." Homer's influence is also evident in the coarse naturalism of the succeeding generations of Realists, known as the Ashcan Painters, from Robert Henri to his students, including George Bellows, George Luks and John Sloan.

Conversely, Homer's visions of the sea served as inspiration for the transcendentalist painter Rockwell Kent who, like Henri and Bellows, travelled to the rocky coast of Maine to paint from the same terrain the inspired his hero. Kent's unpopulated landscapes, including wintry scenes of the Maine Coast, are noted for the formal qualities that tie his work to Homer. In the words of J. Nilsen Laurvik, director of the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, Kent was "a worthy successor to the master of Prout's Neck, whos rugged, rock-ribbed coast he has depicted with forthright simplicity and directness that has something of the stark actuality and bitter tang of the sea itself."

The influence of Winslow Homer continued into the 20 th century, particularly among artists who largely rejected the European inspired trends of abstraction and continued to pursue a distinctly American voice in their art. Among the American Regionalists, the vision of Homer found greatest resonance with the realist paintings of Edward Hopper whose urban landscapes match the eerie silence of Homer's desolate seascapes. Somewhat surprising is Homer's influence on those artists who more readily identify with the influences of European abstraction in the early 20 th century such as Marsden Hartley. Both Hopper and Hartley took multiple trips to the Maine coast, repeating the pilgrimage first taken by Henri and Bellows. But where the influence of Homer on the succeeding realists is overt, Hartley sought to fuse the two seemingly diverse approaches to create a modern regionalist style.


Critic’s Corner: Undertow and Shepherdess of Houghton Farm

By John Boudreau, Communications Intern

Though Winslow Homer is today regarded as one of America’s preeminent artists, he didn’t always meet with such universal critical approval during his career. This week, we take a look at some positive reviews and comments. Do you agree with the reviewers? Disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Next week, we’ll highlight some not-so-positive reviews. Stay tuned!

Winslow Homer, Undertow, 1886. Oil on canvas, 75.7 x 121 cm. The Clark, 1955.4

Undertow, 1886

“Though not remarkable for powerful drawing nor for any especially beautiful quality of color, this picture has a force about it, an air of truth, a fine sculpturesque quality of modeling that puts it far beyond the ordinary well-done sort of work that we are bound to praise for its honesty, but which does not excite our enthusiasm. In this picture there is a breath of great art…[Homer’s] ‘Undertow,’ by its virility, its truth, its sincerity of intention, outranks every picture in the Academy exhibition.”—“Fine Arts. The Academy Exhibition—I,” The Nation 44 (14 April 1887): 327

Winslow Homer, Shepherdess of Houghton Farm, 1878. Watercolor and graphite, with additions in ink and gouache, on cream wove paper, 27.9 x 48.3 cm. The Clark, 1955.1483

Shepherdess of Houghton Farm, 1878

“Mr. Homer has started and has well under way a watercolor drawing taken from the studies, which is admirably composed. In shadow on the crest of a ridge in gently rolling country lies stretched on the grass, a young girl, surrounded by her sheep. The adjoining rise, on which are a few trees, is in full sunlight, up against which the foreground figures are sharply defined”—“Fine Arts. Studio Notes,” New York Herald, 11 November 1878

“McDonald called—Said 3 Winslow Homer watercolors would be there for me to see….The Winslow Homers came—A ‘Log Jam’ excellent but $3000—A Beach Scene not finished—A pastoral scene with ‘Sheep, Pasture & a Girl 1878’–$1000—I never saw one with sheep before—It was very poetic. [sic]”—Sterling Clark Diary, 29 September 1942 (74)

Reviews are excerpted from Winslow Homer: The Clark Collection, ed. Marc Simpson (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2013), pages 86 and 74.


American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) — the self-taught master best known today for his scenes of nature and the sea — got his start as one of the “special artists” of the Civil War. They were the combat correspondents of their day, traveling and living with soldiers. Their sketches, woodcuts, and paintings showed both the horror of battle and the makeshift respite of camp life. Printed by the thousands, these images gave the American public a visual sense of the war.

Homer grew up in what was then rural Cambridge, and by 1859 had a studio on 10th Street in New York. In March 1861 he was hired by Harper’s Weekly to illustrate Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address — and then stayed on with the magazine when the Civil War began a month later. Off and on, Homer spent the next four years documenting the conflict. (For a time he was attached to the 5th New York Infantry, a unit known as Duryee’s Zouaves.) He sketched a war of action, color, and carnage — but he didn’t ignore the lulls in between, when soldiers lounged in camp thinking of home.

Homer’s Civil War days, represented by two paintings, drew a small, intent audience to the Arthur M. Sackler Museum last week. The occasion was the latest in a series of gallery talks sponsored by the Harvard Art Museums. Melissa Renn, senior curatorial associate, and senior museum educator Judith Murray provided commentary on the two works: “Pitching Quoits” and “The Brush Harrow.”

Both are dated 1865, but could hardly be more different. The first depicts Zouave soldiers — resplendent in their trademark red fezzes, short jackets, and billowing scarlet pants — pitching quoits in a crowded Army camp. (They were actually pitching horseshoes, said Renn.) The painting’s dramatic use of color marks it as a Homer, Renn said, and its composition shows both romantic and classical influences.

The second painting shows two boys, one mounted on a U.S.-branded horse drawing a harrow across a barren field. That they were boys, that there were no men, and that the scrawny horse had seen Army service are all oblique acknowledgements of the exhausting war that had just ended. Critics recognize this outwardly peaceful scene as a Civil War painting as much as any battle scene could be — and that it is tender, sensitive, and poignant. To Murray, this rural scene embodies Lincoln’s wish in his second inaugural — that Americans set aside malice and “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

It also shows, she added, “the presence of the absence” — a scene that speaks to a fact of life following the war. It was an immense killing field, with a death toll of 750,000.

Murray helped develop the Engaging New Americans project at the Harvard Art Museums. It’s designed to introduce immigrants to American culture, and to show “how works of art really speak,” she said. “The Brush Harrow” is a frequent centerpiece of the classes.

In his Civil War work, said Renn, Homer never depicted dead soldiers — a commonplace otherwise in newspapers of the time. Nor did Homer depict battle scenes as heroic.

But he was not shy about the facts. Perhaps his best-known illustration from the war is “The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty” (1862). It depicts a Union sniper poised in a tree and peering through a scope mounted on his long rifle. Art historians praise it for its “dramatic diagonals,” said Renn. But to Homer it was a tragedy, and sharpshooters were the grim technicians of modern rifle technology. “I always had a horror,” he wrote later, “of that branch of service.”

There is a touch of horror even in the outwardly peaceful “Pitching Quoits,” one viewer suggested this week. In the foreground, speckled on scrap wood near a dead campfire, are holly berries, tiny and blood-red.


A Closer Look at Some of Winslow Homer's Paintings

In the beautiful seascape painting below, notice the subtle color variation in the sky there are all kinds of dull greens, yellows, reds and grays. In fact, there is hardly any blue. Keep this in mind next time you are painting a moody seascape. Don't fall into the "sky is always blue" trap.

At the bottom of the painting, Homer gave the indication of wet sand reflecting light from the sky and water. Smooth brushwork was used for this area, in contrast against the rough and textured brushwork used for the crashing waves.

Below is a very delicate painting by Homer, featuring a young lady in a white dress amongst the landscape. As with many of Homer's paintings, there is a moody feel to the landscape, with dark clouds overhead.

There are pleasing similarities between the lady and the delicate flowers next to her both are painted with intricate detail and mostly light colors. The rest of the surrounding landscape is painted with relatively basic detail and dull colors.

This is also an excellent example of how to paint white subjects. If you look closely, you will see that hardly any pure white was used the dress is made up of weak yellows, purples and grays. Homer reserved pure white for only the strongest highlights.

Below is a stunning example of value contrast (contrast between light and dark). The light in the background really jumps out of the painting. As Homer once said:

"It is wonderful how much depends upon the relations of black and white. A black and white, if properly balanced, suggests color."

Also, notice the sweeping brushwork used in the foreground to suggest a strong wind. This is reinforced by the subject whose dress is catching the wind and who appears to be grabbing her hat to stop it from blowing away.

In Homer's Girl Fisherman, the girl emerges from an abstract background. There is a seagull at the top of the painting and just a hint of clouds in the sky. The rest of the background is up to your imagination. The girl, by contrast, is painted with intricate detail and soft, muted colors.

Homer's colorful watercolor painting below features a pleasing contrast between oranges and blues (complementary colors). I am not sure how Homer painted this, but I assume he started with general washes then scumbled color over the top. Homer also used black to draw your attention to the boat in the middle.

The painting below is much more relaxed, which is appropriate for depicting the fading light of the sunset (less light means less clarity). The painting is limited in terms of hue, with red and black dominating.

The painting below hints at Homer's work in illustration, with the careful and almost exaggerated rendering of the subjects. What I love about the painting is the control shown in the water you get a sense of the water's form and movement without it feeling overdone.

Below is a demonstration of Homer's remarkable control and overall talent. The colors are muted, but not bland. The composition is clever, with there being a pleasing balance between detailed and simplified areas. The brushwork is intricate, yet not overdone. Finally, the deep black used for the teacher's dress and blackboard draws your attention through the painting towards the center.

(I go into much more detail on the fundamentals in my Painting Academy course.)


Winslow Homer at Harvard — A History of ‘Fake News’

W inslow Homer: Eyewitness is the new show at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass., on the campus of Harvard. Homer (1836–1910) always keeps giving, and this is one measure of his greatness. On the one hand, he’s rooted in tradition. He’s a Hudson River School artist in his focus on landscape and seascape, though the show makes clear that he’s a formidable figure painter, too. On the other, he’s not only modern but also fresh and responsive to our times. The show serves nicely as a Homer primer, among its fascinating areas of focus.

This show is about the news business in the 1860s in America and the way it molded Homer’s style. Americans have always been news-obsessed. Even in the 1840s and 1850s, our mostly frontier country had thousands of newspapers. Then, technology changed the news business constantly, and that continues today. And as the show deftly notes, fake news was not an occasional problem so much as an inherent vice.

Whenever you look at art by Homer, it’s worth remembering that he became famous as a newspaper and magazine illustrator from the late 1850s through the 1870s. He was a star illustrator of the two marquee news magazines, Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Monthly, before the technology of mass producing a photograph was developed. And what made him more famous is his coverage of the biggest news story in America: the Civil War.

The show is a good balance of illustrations, watercolors, paintings, and photographs, and they’re not only separate media but reinforcing ones. News from the War, a Homer illustration that appeared in June 1862, is one of the early works in the show. Yes, Homer was covering a grisly war, but the eternally narcissistic news business — reporters like nothing more than a story about themselves — could take time to celebrate its own acumen in getting good stories from the battlefield to the hearth.

Homer is a designer of genius. It’s seven vignettes, so it’s complicated. He organizes it through effective black and white contrasts and a cunning talent for using passages of symmetry and asymmetry to keep things both lively and moving in a coherent way. News comes by letter, bugle, word of mouth, the new technology of railroads, and, emphatically, via the gutsy reporter, who happens to be Homer himself.

The reality is that reporters rarely got close to battle. They were as aggressively spun and massaged then as now by generals and politicians. Homer was no exception. Sitting on an empty barrel, though, the sketching Homer suggests that he was indeed a witness. As the public’s eyes and ears, he felt the sadness and enthusiasm of the war and was uniquely positioned to convey it. Newspaper wars in the 1860s were fierce, with major outlets such as Harper’s claiming that competitors published fake news — not only false news but news they invented — as opposed to Homer’s on-the-spot observation and drawing.

Rebels outside Their Works, also from 1862, goes a step further. Set in Yorktown, Homer’s illustration depicts Confederate soldiers prowling the front line at night, for both sharpshooting and spying. Homer excelled at heart-pumping drama. As the war reporter, he’s shining a light on what’s happening at the front as much as Confederates were using torches to gather an information advantage. He creates a documentary sense of “you are there.” That’s what every good reporter does.

Homer is at his most effective and most modern as a story-telling minimalist. He’s a great designer and organizer of groups, but his best illustrations are the simplest. Sometimes his minimalism was required. Most of the media turf wars occurred over word counts and column inches. Good stories could be told with brevity. Our Watering Places — The Empty Sleeve at Newport appeared in Harper’s Weekly in August 1865. The war had ended a few months before. The work illustrated a story about a young soldier who came back from the war to discover that in his absence his wife had learned to drive a buggy. It’s a sweet tale of women’s liberation.

Looking at the illustration, though, one can quickly see that it oozes with anxiety. The brightest white is the woman’s face. That’s where the viewer goes because it’s so bright. Her expression tells us she’s determined but terrified, and her grip on the taut reins underscores the point. Her husband’s face is sunken. Both faces are partially shaded, telling us that some things are ambiguous or unseen. Then we focus on the empty sleeve. He’s come back disfigured, an amputee. Homer is at his best in conveying a big, universal story, filled with pathos, through the smallest detail or nuance. This couple has a lot more to get used to than the wife having learned to drive a buggy.

The scene is set in Newport, even then a glittering summer-vacation spot. It might surprise that he did so many scenes of everyday women’s lives since Homer was among the most alpha of male artists. He loved to fish and hunt, never married, and lived mostly in the company of rich men, but given these things, he was a canny interpreter of bourgeois leisure, and that includes women’s clothing and women’s activities. Harper’s wasn’t only a news periodical. It was a lifestyle publication, too. On the one hand, this couple seeks the normalcy of a Newport vacation, the first since the shooting stopped. On the other, for them, nothing will be normal again.

The art in the show is almost entirely from the Fogg’s collection. Homer is one of those rare artists who almost never had a bad day, so everything is good. If I had to name its biggest stars, though, I’d have to pick the six Homer watercolors from the Fogg’s Grenville Winthrop collection. Winthrop was one of New York’s greatest collectors. When he died in 1843, his collection came to the Fogg. The gift came with so many restrictions that these works, great American and European things, almost never leave the Fogg.

The Winthrop Homer watercolors are gorgeous. They’re joined by five other Homer watercolors, and these are rarely seen as well. Homer started making watercolors in 1873, inspired by their on-the-spot immediacy. By the mid 1860s, he was painting in oil, but watercolor allowed him to develop his knack for showing the single, ephemeral moment for aesthetic goals rather than a newspaper’s goal to report the stories of the day.

All the watercolors in the show are from the 1880s and 1890s. His palette is so various, with citrus colors used for his Caribbean scenes to dull grays, greens, and blues of his wild Maine and Adirondack pictures. Canoe in Rapids, from 1897, is Homer at his essentialist best. The rough forest landscape, cold gray sky, and roiled water is a triumph of efficiency and directness, each element of nature reduced to essential qualities. It’s beautiful but far from pretty. In most of his watercolors, he shows a hard, rough world. Even when he peoples them, the figures are subordinated to a natural world that’s timeless, vast, and uncontrollable. Nature’s rarely decorative.

The show is worth seeing for two of the Winthrop watercolors. Schooner at Sunset and Sailboat and Fourth of July Fireworks are both from 1880, a year Homer painted sunset and nocturne watercolors, mostly in Gloucester, Mass. I’ve seen these two a few times over the years, only because I lived near Harvard when I was a museum director in Andover. They’re so exquisite, so sublime, packing a big punch in a small package. I think of them like a dog thinks of food, which is a lot.

Why are they in a show about Homer in the news? For very smart, subtle reasons. The heart, and art, of the news business is chasing and capturing instants in time. The things that change are the things we read a newspaper to learn. It’s why we check our news sites a dozen times a day. Fireworks are ephemeral, though the bangs and lights are big. Even a sunset changes from second to second, and we know a great sunset starts slowly, evolves, but then the sun drops like a stone.

There are only three or four oil paintings in the show. The most famous and one of only two loans is Prisoners at the Front, from 1866. At that point, Homer was starting to paint big studio oils and moving into the high-art world. This painting has the feel of a newspaper illustration, which isn’t a slight. Its figures are clearly defined. Its design is close to a frieze, and that’s part of his newspaper vocabulary. Illustrations in newspapers and magazines usually don’t have much depth. Depth and recession are distractions. Newspaper illustration, then news photography around 1900, and, now, TV-news camerawork often present complex images, but they’re never too far from the direct look of billboards. The reporter has to snag the viewer, and one way to do it is privileging the surface.

It’s easy to read in another respect. Homer presents us with three Southern types: the reckless, arrogant Confederate cavalier, a Johnny Depp or James Dean type a bewildered old man and a poor, dumb country bumpkin, what Homer’s generation would have called a “Georgia cracker.” The cavalier caused the war, the bumpkin fought it, not knowing any better, and the old man reflects the desperation of the Confederacy in its dying days when it took everyone and anyone. He might have been a farmer or shopkeeper who became part of the Confederate supply chain. His best days are behind him, and that doesn’t say much that’s positive about the post-war South.

The Union soldier at the right is Francis Barlow, at age 30 a major general, fighting in a dozen battles, among them Gettysburg and Antietam. He was one of a handful of Union soldiers to start the war as an enlisted man and end it as a general. Homer was a fine figure painter and could paint very good portraits. Portraits are rare in his work, though. He didn’t want to go on the treadmill of painting the rich.

Barlow’s portrait shows Homer’s considerable prowess. Barlow was first in his Harvard class academically when he enlisted. He came from a newspaper background himself, working for the New York Tribune as an in-house counsel before the war. He was the war’s Audie Murphy, not quite as decorated and not a movie star, but a soldier often profiled in the press as both gentle and tough, honest, smart, and having no airs. He was the model WASP.

The show positions Barlow and the cavalier-type as modeling “a spirit of civil exchange and peaceful reconciliation, symbolizing the resilience of republican democracy.” I don’t agree with this. Our swaggering badass is indeed in the middle of the composition, giving him some primacy, but it’s a primacy driven by troublemaking. The cavalier class in Virginia and South Carolina especially — entitled, rich, narcissistic, and arrogant — dragged the South into the war and ruin. Barlow is shown in profile, looking like a Roman statue. A single Barlow — intelligent, cool, dignified, and commanding — was enough to best three Confederates. Homer chose to depict the famous Barlow as the symbol of the Union, with the three anonymous types representing the Confederacy, as if defeat deprived them of individuality.

I doubt the three Confederates were contemplating “civil exchange and peaceful reconciliation.” The South at the end of the war was flattened and surly. The widows of Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis might have taken tea and carriage rides together in New York in the 1880s, but broad reconciliation was in the air only for the 15 minutes it took Lincoln to deliver his Second Inaugural Address in 1865. The old man looks terrified and wants the earth to swallow him. His backwater colleague doesn’t look capable of thinking high fallutin’ ideas. The impudent buck seethes with unapologetic resentment.

I see the painting as celebrating hegemony, done in a reportorial style that Homer adapted to the realm of painting, enlarging it and indulging in the luxury of details such as specific regimental colors and uniforms. It’s Barlow who looks as though he has a future in this scenario, and he did. Later, he was the prosecutor who broke the Boss Tweed machine in New York.

This is the one quibble I have with an impressive, instructive show. It isn’t huge, but it’s intellectually rich and nicely organized in discrete, compact sections. It has a section on Civil War photography by artists other than Homer. Today, we know Matthew Brady’s powerful scenes of battlefield dead, but in the 1860s these images were not widely seen. Photography was too much of a niche medium. In any event, the federal government practiced extensive censorship of war news. Homer, as much as he was a documentarian, almost never showed the violence of war, but he rarely depicted jingoist valor, either. His scenes from the front cover the boredom of camp life, snappy uniforms, and, rarely, the confusion of battle.

Army of the Potomac — A Sharpshooter, from 1862, is the exception. Sharpshooters were part of many warring armies, but the Civil War was the first in which they were an organized, specialized part of the military. They were still controversial because they drained warfare of valor and courage. They were stealth fighters, picking the enemy off without a good fight. They reduced soldiers to the status of hunted animals. A soldier on the front could never feel safe if sharpshooters were in the neighborhood. When they were captured, sharpshooters weren’t treated as prisoners of war. They were routinely shot. Homer gives us close to an eyewitness view by putting us in the tree with the sharpshooter as he pulls the trigger. It’s a frightening image of brutal, sudden, anonymous death and, for Homer and every other war artist in the Civil War, a unique scene.

There’s good material on Homer’s illustration process. He started with drawings, then sent them to Harper’s printshop, which employed something approaching an assembly line to engrave the drawings on wooden blocks and later transfer them to metal plates suitable for mass reproduction.

The Fogg is one of the great museums in the country. Its collection is stupendous. I don’t hate its renovated building, which reopened a couple of years ago, since it’s impossible to wreck the home of so many great things, and it’s certainly modernized. The Fogg is what people call the Harvard Art Museums, once three separate museums now combined into one with a great new art-conservation lab. It’s been “Renzoed,” via an obscenely expensive, $450-million renovation designed by Renzo Piano. There was no reason — aside from ego — to hire a glamorous, expensive Italian architect to design what was almost entirely an interior revamp. The museum was almost totally closed to the public for five years, which is inexcusable. Access to Harvard students was so limited that, in effect, thousands came and went having little meaningful contact with the museum.

The Fogg was an old-time gothic-revival-meets-beaux-arts space, an accretion of odd but attractive old academic fads like sunken spaces and pilasters and friezes where you’d least expect them. I liked the idiosyncratic look, part comfy, part ratty, and part elegant. Renzo made it look like every other museum, which means it looks like a hospital. At least it’s light-filled, which is nice. Galleries for German art — one of the three museums was dedicated to that school — look good. Permanent-collection galleries are almost entirely painted white, which works for some things like ancient art but is otherwise a killer, especially in Old Master paintings galleries. I hope the wall colors aren’t Renzo-required.

The project was many years in the making, one reason it grew into a money pit. One idea, an entirely new site on the Charles River, was abandoned after a neighborhood furor. The building in this iteration was fraught with problems, leading to many delays. The financial crisis in 2008 caught Harvard in some endowment and capital-campaign shenanigans. I believe this slowed fundraising. During the time the museum was closed, the entire curatorial team was restructured and right-sized. This was good, since the Fogg had too many curators, but the changes contributed to a miserable mood at the place.

This has changed. It’s ruled by a new director, Martha Tedeschi, who has many things in her favor. She’s a print curator, which means she’s absorbed a zeitgeist of humility that’s refreshing at Harvard. Print curators experience endless slights because of the primacy of painting curators, but they’re often the finest connoisseurs, and I’ve met few who are prima donnas. She is a warm, reassuring presence. She was the print curator at the Art Institute of Chicago for years, a very functional place, and didn’t go to Harvard. Harvard, I know, is many different places but insularity is an easy ailment to acquire among Harvard natives.

The Fogg, like every department at Harvard, does its own fundraising. It’s a type of academic financing called “each tub on its own bottom.” During a big school-wide capital campaign, Harvard’s central fundraising office will help its constituents, but for operations — basically, supporting the annual budget — you’re on your own. I suspect that the Fogg’s new director has an enormous fundraising burden. Now that the Fogg has a revamped building, solving a decades-long menu of infrastructure problems, I doubt the central Harvard money machine will lift a finger to help the Fogg. The Fogg is considered done and no longer at the head of any lines.

I’m not sure how much of the Fogg’s fundraising went to meet the $450 million target for the Renzo project, how unexpectedly expensive it is to run this big boutique building where much is customized, or how much endowment money actually came in to support future operations. My impression from colleagues at the Fogg and Harvard is that it’s an unusually uneasy money moment. There’s nothing Tedeschi can’t handle. She’s the real thing. Donors will love working with her. Everything about her is quality.

The place has a newly positive spirit. The shows are good. Students are obviously much involved in the museum. That wasn’t always the case. With a permanent collection of 250,000 objects, the Fogg doesn’t need to do big loan shows. With the excellent Homer show and the other good permanent collection shows there, and a fantastic collection, it’s a joy to see the Fogg back in business.


Winslow Homer


Winslow Homer was an American landscape painter and printmaker, best known for his marine subjects. He is considered one of the foremost painters in 19th century America and a preeminent figure in American art.

Largely self-taught, Homer began his career working as a commercial illustrator. He subsequently took up oil painting and produced major studio works characterized by the weight and density he exploited from the medium. He also worked extensively in watercolor, creating a fluid and prolific oeuvre, primarily chronicling his working vacations.

Some major artists create popular stereotypes that last for decades others never reach into popular culture at all. Winslow Homer was a painter of the first kind. Even today, 150 years after his birth, one sees his echoes on half the magazine racks of America. Just as John James Audubon becomes, by dilution, the common duck stamp, so one detects the vestiges of Homer's watercolors in every outdoor-magazine cover that has a dead whitetail draped over a log or a largemouth bass, like an enraged Edward G. Robinson with fins, jumping from dark swamp water. Homer was not, of course, the first "sporting artist" in America, but he was the undisputed master of the genre, and he brought to it both intense observation and a sense of identification with the landscape-just at the cultural moment when the religious Wilderness of the nineteenth century, the church of nature, was shifting into the secular Outdoors, the theater of manly enjoyment. If you want to see Thoreau's America turning into Teddy Roosevelt's, Homer the watercolorist is the man to consult.

The Homer sesquicentennial (he was born in 1836 and died in 1910) is being celebrated with "Winslow Homer Watercolors," organized by Helen Cooper at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Her catalogue is a landmark in Homer studies. It puts Homer in his true relationship to illustration, to other American art and to the European and English examples he followed, from Ruskin to Millet its vivacity of argument matches that of the oil paintings. Cooper has brought together some two hundred watercolors-almost a third of Homer's known output. It is a wholly delectable show, and it makes clear why watercolor, in its special freshness and immediacy, gave Homer access to moments of vision he did not have in the weightier, slower diction of oils.

"You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors," Homer once remarked, and he was almost right. He came to the medium late: he was thirty-seven and a mature artist. A distinct air of the Salon, of the desire for a "major" utterance that leads to an overworked surface, clings to some of the early watercolors-in particular, the oil paintings of fisher folk he did during a twenty-month stay in the northern English coastal village of Cullercoats in 1881-82. Those robust girls, simple, natural, windbeaten and enduring, planted in big boots with arms akimbo against the planes of sea, rock and sky, are also images of a kind of moralizing earnestness that was common in French Salon art a century ago. Idealizations of the peasant, reflecting an anxiety that folk culture was being annihilated by the gravitational field of the city, were the stock of dozens of painters like Paul Cezanne, Van Gogh, Manet and Claude Monet. Homer's own America had its anxieties too - immense ones. Nothing in its cultural history is more striking than the virtual absence of any mention of the central American trauma of the nineteenth century, the Civil War, from painting. Its fratricidal miseries were left to writers (Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane) to explore, and to photographers. But painting served as a way of oblivion - of reconstructing an idealized innocence. Thus, as Cooper points out, Homer's 1870s watercolors of farm children and bucolic courtships try to memorialize the halcyon days of the 185os the children gazing raptly at the blue horizon in Three Boys on the Shore, their backs forming a shallow arch, are in a sense this lost America. None of this prevented Homer's contemporaries from seeing such works as unvarnished and in some ways disagreeable truth. "Barbarously simple," thought Henry James. "He has chosen the least pictorial features of the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization as if they were every inch as good as Capri or Tangier and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded."

In the 1880's he moved to Prout's Neck, Maine and began painting scenes of the sea and coast. It is interesting to note the contrast in the subject matter of his work. His early work captured the horror of the Civil War, and towards the end of his life, his work captured the peace and serenity of the Maine Coast. Winslow Homer died on September 29, 1910.


Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer, about 1907. Macbeth Gallery records, 1947–1948. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Winslow Homer, one of the most influential American painters of the nineteenth century, is known for his dynamic depictions of the power and beauty of nature and reflections on humanity’s struggle with the sea. A keen observer of the world around him, Homer likewise experimented with color, form, and composition, pushing his landscapes and genre pictures in modern directions. Raised in Massachusetts, he apprenticed in a lithography shop in Boston in the mid-1850s and soon secured work as a freelance illustrator. Relocating to New York, he undertook assignments for Harper’s Weekly , among other journals, and enrolled in drawing classes at the National Academy of Design.

During the Civil War, Harper’s Weekly sent Homer to the front, where he made drawings of Union battlefields , camps, and military hospitals that appeared as wood engravings in the widely circulated publication. Homer also took up painting during his time as an artist-correspondent. After the war, he focused on oil painting, working in New York and also traveling to France in 1866–67. Over the following decade, Homer painted scenes of leisure set in nature, such as the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the Adirondacks in upstate New York. He also spent his summers visiting New England fishing villages , discovering new subjects that had a profound effect on his career.

In 1881, he spent more than a year in the small fishing village of Cullercoats, England. This extended stay in the seaside community catalyzed a new, enduring interest in humankind’s age-old contest with nature, rendered in larger-scale compositions with more monumental figures and forms. In the summer of 1883 Homer moved to the coastal village of Prouts Neck, Maine, which remained his home for the rest of his life. There, he observed the shoreline in various weather conditions and seasons, creating his great seascapes, such as the iconic work The Herring Net . Amid the remote and dramatic landscape, he depicted views void of human life, focusing instead on an emotional response to nature, as in Coast of Maine .

Late in his career, during visits to the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, and Florida, Homer applied his sophisticated understanding of color and light to a new set of atmospheric conditions, most spectacularly in his watercolors, such as After the Hurricane, Bahamas .

The Art Institute’s collection of works by Winslow Homer spans his career. The artist’s works on paper were featured in the 2008 exhibition Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light.


Winslow Homer - History

"A SHARP-SHOOTER ON PICKET DUTY"

Winslow Homer's Famous Civil War Wood Engraving

Offered here is an original wood engraving of Winslow Homer's "The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp-Shooter On Picket Duty" published in 1862! It will come to the buyer nicely matted and in a protective plastic enclosure. This is a wonderful example of Homer's work that is much in demand by both Homer and Civil War collectors. See the example and explanation in the National Gallery of Art's collection.

When Winslow Homer made the transition from illustrator to the medium of watercolors the first image he chose to paint was the Sharpshooter, which is shown above. The wood engraving offered is based on but a little different from the watercolor executed earlier in 1862 (e.g. the addition of the canteen and a clearer focus on the face of the marksman) and in many ways provides clearer details.

In "Echo Of A Distant Drum: Winslow Homer and the Civil War" by Julian Grossman (New York, 1974) the author says of the wood engraving:

The wood engraving presents a bold and beautiful design. In effect it glamorizes the war. The sharpness of the solder's eye and the accuracy of his air are heroized in this composition. He is seen from surprisingly close up, as if the viewer were sitting on a nearby limb. The marksman's target is not seen, but we know that the glistening gun barrel is aimed at another American.

In a way the mass scenes do not, this single large figure somehow brings home the peculiar horror of the Civil War.

The sharpshooter is perched high in the tree. The warm beauty of the needles, cones, and bark is juxtaposed to the cold, man-made reality of the means of war.

The Philadelphia Print Shop has offered the same Homer engraving for $750, but neither they nor New York's Old Print Shop currently have one for sale.

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