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Best known for his marine subjects, Winslow Homer was a landscape painter and printmaker from the United States.
One of the foremost painters of 19th century America, Winslow Homer was a preeminent figure of art in America. Although he started his work and career as a commercial illustrator, he later took up oil painting and the rest is history.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States, Winslow Homer is a pioneer of naturalistic painting and was the most versatile painter in the U.S. of that period. He was born on February 24, 1836, to Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer. He was the second of three sons from the parents who were from long lines of New Englanders. Henrietta was a painter too and was a talented watercolorist. She was the one who first taught Homer about colors and their uses. The mother and son had a close relationship all throughout their lives and were bonded by colors. Winslow Homer is known to have taken much of his mother's traits including her strong-willed nature, quiet, terse, and sociable traits. Most of all, he took her dry sense of humor and the artistic eye from his mother. Winslow Homer grew up mostly in then rural Cambridge, Massachusetts of that time. His father however was a restless businessman who always wanted more. He gave up his hardware store when Winslow Homer was just 13 to make money in the California Gold Rush. This too failed and Charles Homer left the family to go to Europe and raise money to invest in some other fast-earning schemes which also failed. We will learn more about his childhood and how Winslow Homer began painting later in the article.
His love for the country came from his tryst with nature during childhood. He was independent in life and that's what made him a great and accomplished artist. He had a dry Yankee humor and was almost entirely self-taught. At just the age of 21, Homer launched himself as an illustrator. He did that for Harper's Weekly in New York. Winslow Homer moved to New York in 1859 and freelanced for Harper's Weekly. He also studied for some time at the National Academy of Design and took some private painting lessons. While working for Harper's Weekly, Homer went to the Virginia front during the Civil War many times. The illustrations made by Winslow Homer in the 1860s and the 1870s take their place among the best graphic of that time for their realism, fine design, and strong draftsmanship. Just being an illustrator did not satisfy Homer and that is the reason in 1862, he launched his first realistic paintings. Contemporary country life is what Homer always preferred and always chose and he did just that after the war. The American artist started painting with the reference to the simpler life of the farm, childhood in the country, and so on. Doing this time, he made a mark in the American art scene of the 1860s and 1870s.
Homer always worked on visual sensations of outdoor color and light and always disregarded traditional ways. Homer's career and his work were based on direct observations in nature since the early days. The qualities of color, pigment, and line were combined with the fresh vision that Homer brought with him. Homer's work had some similarities with French impressionism but had no influence. In late 1866, Homer traveled abroad for the first time, to France, but not to learn. He went to paint on his own. Even though Homer went to the land of art history, his work was not the slightest influenced or changed by this experience. The year 1873 saw Homer take a fascination for a new form of art, using watercolors. His art style and work merged perfectly with this new form and it was as important to him as using oil paints. His success with watercolors made him leave illustrations completely and Homer only painted them occasionally after 1875. The life of the American painter changed in 1881 and 1882 when Winslow Homer spent two seasons near Tynemouth in England. Tynemouth is a fishing port of the North Sea. During this period, Homer painted entirely on watercolors and used the sea and the hardy men and women as the subjects. The use of watercolors along with Homer's talent gave the paintings a new sense of the depth of feeling and technical advancement in deeper color, atmospheric quality, and rounder modeling.
If you want to see one of his oil on canvas works, visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. for a closer look at the Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) painting.
Apart from the usual history that we have discussed above, Homer's life has seen many different stages.
Winslow Homer left New York in the year 1883 completely and started living on the Maine coast, Prout's Neck. Homer's studio, the famous one, was built here where he lived for the entirety of his life. He did everything himself, cooking and other household works. Homer never told anyone why he left civilization and started living alone for the rest of his life. His letters to the family indicated that he was quite happy with his life and there was no wrong reason from his for withdrawing from people's company. He even found his subjects for his landscape painting art.
After this event, Winslow Homer changed his life completely. His themes changed to the sea, the mountains, the forests, and the sailors, fishermen, and hunters. The style of painting became more robust and skilled, and in a few years, Homer reached full maturity in terms of art. The artist in him got better. His works, the marine paintings, The Fog Warning, and Eight Bells, are considered classic forms of art even now.
After this, Homer again went on a new venture of a technique called etching. The paintings became the best-designed ones from the artist but they did not sell at all and he left etching after 1889.
The painting dominance of Winslow Homer became the sea itself. The stormiest oceans were a favorite of the artist. His favorites take us to the battlefront between the sea and the shore, the movement of the wave, the rocks near the sea, and the collision of the water and the rocks. The beauty of the sea is the best form of art for the artist.
The late 1890s saw the Homer spend most winters and some part of it in the Bahamas, Bermuda, or Florida. A new world of light and color was revealed to the artist in West Indies.
In his old age, Homer was considered the foremost painter of America and he received many honors for it. All of his most important oils were sold during his life. On September 29, 1910, Homer died a bachelor at Prout's Neck.
Homer's paintings have also garnered a lot of attention over the years and still, they are valuable now. His use of colors and light captured the real aesthetic of the world and that revolutionized American art of that time.
During the American Civil War, he dealt with the regular day-to-day lives of the people in the camp while other artists in the Civil War focused on the scenes of the war instead. And because of this, in the year 1865, he was elected to the National Academy of Design. Homer viewed the war with the chaotic battle scenes and also the quiet moments of the everyday lives of the soldiers.
Apart from the oil paintings, his main achievements were from the watercolors. Every year, Winslow Homer and his elder brother Charles did camping visits to the northern woods (Quebec and Adirondacks). Homer used watercolors to capture the unspoiled beauty of nature in American art.
In the Bahamas, the artist romanticized the life of Blacks in a painting series using watercolors that were one of the best ones of his work. The hand of the master was at work and it reflected in his watercolor fine arts.
Breezing Up by Homer is now hanging in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. The same painting is also featured on a stamp issued by U.S. Post Office.
Prisoners from the Front of the year 1866 was well-received when it was shown right after the American Civil War ended.
His work was influenced by French naturalism, contemporary fashion illustration, and Japanese prints. But after his France trip, nothing much changed except his drawings became brighter. His drawings like Long Branch, New Jersey, and Snap the Whip became quite popular.
Snap the Whip was one of his famous paintings. It depicted a scene with some young boys holding hands and running at full speed across a field of green grass with wildflowers of different hues.
His painting The Fox Hunt was immediately purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was his largest painting.
Homer's life had different aspects that influenced his art.
Homer started painting with his mother who was a watercolor artist. He joined a lithographer for some time and then went on a journey to be a commercial illustrator. His technique of painting was influenced a lot by being an illustrator for 20 years. He took some private art classes in between.
He was then sent to the war front from which his sketches depicting the war became quite famous. The year 1873 saw Homer beginning to use watercolors more in his paintings. A wide range of styles and techniques were used by him which showed in his paintings like Blackboard and The Blazing Sunset. He left his illustrator job in 1875 to focus on paintings alone.
He moved to Maine and then focused on marine paintings like Undertow and Eight Bells. His focus on the sea and the subjects brought bright light and color to his paintings.
His childhood was quite eventful with his mother becoming his inspiration on the art front.
Homer was born in Massachusetts in 1836 and since a young age was encouraged by his mother to paint. His mother was a talented watercolor artist too. Homer began his career as an apprentice to a lithographer in the firm of John H. Bufford in Boston. After this, he changed his career to a commercial illustrator and that career choice lasted for about 20 years. His distinct style of painting is all because of his career choice as an illustrator. Robert Henri, an American painter, and teacher, named Homer's work as the integrity of nature.
Born into an old New England family, Homer's family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts which was a rural village where he enjoyed farm life and the countryside. This also inspired his paintings at the start. After his apprenticeship, most of his work involved copying other artists' designs, but after a few years, he submitted his own drawings in Ballou’s Pictorial and Harper’s Weekly. He soon moved to New York to work as a freelance illustrator.
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