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Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer is regarded as the greatest American painter of the 19th century. Born in Boston and raised in rural Cambridge, he began his career as a commercial printmaker, first in Boston and then in New York, where he settled in 1859. He briefly studied oil painting in the spring of 1861. In October of the same year, he was sent to the front in Virginia as an artist-correspondent for the new illustrated journal Harper’s Weekly. Homer’s earliest Civil War paintings, dating from about 1863, are anecdotal, like his prints. As the war drew to a close, however, such canvases as The Veteran in a New Field (1865) and Prisoners from the Front (1866) reflect a more profound understanding of the war’s impact and meaning.

For Homer, the late 1860s and the 1870s were a time of artistic experimentation and varied output. He resided in New York City, making his living chiefly by designing magazine illustrations and building his reputation as a painter. Still, he found his subjects in the increasingly popular seaside resorts in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and in the Adirondacks, rural New York State, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Late in 1866, motivated probably by chance to see two of his Civil War paintings at the Exposition Universelle, Homer had begun a ten-month sojourn in Paris and the French countryside. In Paris, he discovered the Realist canvases of Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet and the rising fascination with Japonism. While there is little likelihood of influence from members of the French avant-garde, Homer shared their subject interests, their fascination with serial imagery, and their desire to incorporate into their works outdoor light, flat and simple forms (reinforced by their appreciation of Japanese design principles), and free brushwork. Women at leisure and children at play were regular subjects for the artist in the 1870s.

In addition to expanding his mastery of oil paint during that decade, Homer began to create watercolors, and their success enabled him to give up his work as a freelance illustrator by 1875. He had been in Virginia during the war, and he returned there at least once during the mid-1870s, apparently to observe and portray what had happened to the lives of former slaves during the first decade of Emancipation. In the early 1880s, Homer came increasingly to desire solitude, and his art took on a new intensity. In 1881, he traveled to England on his second and final trip abroad. After passing briefly through London, he settled in Cullercoats, a village near Tynemouth on the North Sea, remaining there from the spring of 1881 to November 1882. He became sensitive to the strenuous and courageous lives of its inhabitants, particularly the women, whom he depicted hauling and cleaning fish, mending nets, and, most poignantly, standing at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their men. When the artist returned to New York, both he and his art were greatly changed.

In the summer of 1883, Homer moved from New York to Prouts Neck, Maine, a peninsula ten miles south of Portland. Except for vacation trips to the Adirondacks, Canada, Florida, and the Caribbean, where he produced dazzling watercolors, Homer lived at Prouts Neck until his death. He enjoyed the isolation and was inspired by privacy and silence to paint the great themes of his career: the struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile, transient human life to the timelessness of nature.

In the ambitious works of the 1880s, men challenge the ocean’s power with their strength and cunning or respond to the ocean’s overwhelming force in scenes of a dramatic rescue. By about 1890, however, Homer left the narrative behind to concentrate on the beauty, force, and drama of the sea itself. In their dynamic compositions and richly textured passages, his late seascapes capture the look and feel (and even suggest the sound) of masses of onrushing and receding water. For Homer’s contemporaries, these were the most extravagantly admired of all his works. They remain among his most famous today, appreciated for their virtuoso brushwork, depth of feeling, and hints of modernist abstraction.

The raw style of Homer’s later years was not an anomaly, but rather the distinguishing characteristic of his overall career. The artist regularly approached subjects overlooked by professional artists of his time - rural schoolchildren, hunting scenes, or the lives of recently emancipated African-Americans - with a passion to tell a story. The uncompromising Realism of his style charted a new course for American Art, distinct from the stage-like settings of his European counterparts, while also dispensing with the idealized of the landscape or slick portraits of the upper classes which had previously dominated American painting. Instead, Homer documented the lives of average Americans in a straightforward and seemingly spontaneous style.

This look toward the defining qualities of American life and landscape not only captivated Homer, but also the later generations of American artists whom he inspired. The naturalism that marks Homer's long career, would provide a solid foundation for other icons of American painting, including Robert Henri, George Bellows, and later the modernist Marsden Hartley, each of whom made their own pilgrimage to the rocky shorelines of Maine. It was here that Homer and those who followed explored themes of mortality through images of the turbulent and seemingly eternal stretch of the northern Atlantic.

Throughout his long career, Homer captured the changing tides of American life and livelihood. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Eakins looked to the heroic personalities of athletes, doctors, and professors, Homer sought instead to capture essential archetypes through the games of rural schoolteachers, to windswept land and seascapes, to the stout figures of fishing men and women. Themes of mortality repeatedly haunt Homer's oeuvre from his earliest Civil War paintings to his mid-career hunting series and, finally, his late ruminations on the sea. Often labeled as "heroic" and "masculine," Homer's deceptively simple compositions often presented precarious situations and served as poignant reminders of the fragility of life.

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Winslow Homer (February 24, 1836 – September 29, 1910) 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.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836, Homer was the second of three sons of Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer, both from long lines of New Englanders. His mother was a gifted amateur watercolorist and Homer's first teacher. She and her son had a close relationship throughout their lives. Homer took on many of her traits, including her quiet, strong-willed, terse, sociable nature; her dry sense of humor; and her artistic talent. Homer had a happy childhood, growing up mostly in then rural Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an average student, but his art talent was evident in his early years.

Homer's father was a volatile, restless businessman who was always looking to "make a killing". When Homer was thirteen, Charles gave up the hardware store business to seek a fortune in the California gold rush. When that failed, Charles left his family and went to Europe to raise capital for other get-rich-quick schemes that didn't materialize.

After Homer's high school graduation, his father saw a newspaper advertisement and arranged for an apprenticeship. Homer's apprenticeship at the age of 19 to J. H. Bufford, a Boston commercial lithographer, was a formative but "treadmill experience". He worked repetitively on sheet music covers and other commercial work for two years. By 1857, his freelance career was underway after he turned down an offer to join the staff of Harper's Weekly. "From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone", Homer later stated, "I have had no master, and never shall have any."

Homer's career as an illustrator lasted nearly twenty years. He contributed illustrations of Boston life and rural New England life to magazines such as Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly at a time when the market for illustrations was growing rapidly and fads and fashions were changing quickly. His early works, mostly commercial engravings of urban and country social scenes, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings—qualities that remained important throughout his career. His quick success was mostly due to this strong understanding of graphic design and also to the adaptability of his designs to wood engraving.

Before moving to New York in 1859, Homer lived in Belmont, Massachusetts with his family. His uncle's Belmont mansion, the 1853 Homer House, was the inspiration for a number of his early illustrations and paintings, including several of his 1860s croquet pictures. The Homer House, owned by the Belmont Woman's Club, is open for public tours.

In 1859, he opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, the artistic and publishing capital of the United States. Until 1863, he attended classes at the National Academy of Design, and studied briefly with Frédéric Rondel, who taught him the basics of painting. In only about a year of self-training, Homer was producing excellent oil work. His mother tried to raise family funds to send him to Europe for further study but instead Harper's sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the chaotic ones. His initial sketches were of the camp, commanders, and army of the famous Union officer, Major General George B. McClellan, at the banks of the Potomac River in October 1861.

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Winslow Homer Artworks
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