User menu


Homer, Winslow (1836-1910)


Born and raised in rural Cambridge, MA, Winslow Homer was the son of Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Maria Benson Homer. Homer’s talent for painting manifested at a young age, and at twenty-one he opened his first studio in Boston (Johns). Largely self-taught, he started to publish illustrations in Harper’s Weekly in 1858. One year later, he moved to New York City and opened another studio, taking night classes at the National Academy of Design. It is around this time that Homer most likely became involved with the Pfaffians. He was a member of the “Pfaff group” that published the Saturday Press and was a tenant of the Tenth Street Studio Building from 1871-80 (Lanthrop 832). The young Homer was among the artists at Pfaff's that pioneered the painting of landscapes, specifically focusing on the Hudson Valley, the Berkshires, animal life, and the West for inspiration (Lause 62).

During the Civil War, Homer traveled to Virginia and his sketches of battles and army life were published by Harper’s Weekly. Louis Starr asserts that "at twenty-six, Winslow Homer of Harper’s Weekly had a penchant for depicting camp life exactly as he found it" (111). His choice of war as the subject of his paintings remained constant even after he left the battlefields behind and resumed his life in New York City. During this period he painted Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, The Last Goose at Yorktown, Home, Sweet Home, and Rations. While his early Civil War paintings are anecdotal, his later works would "reflect a more profound understanding of the war's impact and meaning" (Weinburg).

Although Homer would eventually make a profitable living as a painter, he struggled to sell his work earlier in his career, even after creating one of the most recognizable works of the Civil War. Arthur Hoeber describes an exchange between Homer and Mr. Richard of Richard & Co., an art shop on Fifth Avenue, which occurred in the 1870s. Homer offered Richard a portfolio of watercolors for an absurdly small sum, but the dealer refused to accept the bargain and offered to support the artist until his works could be sold properly. The arrangement was the beginning of a long prosperous friendship between the two, in which Richard continued to handle the business end of Homer’s work (14009).

Though primarily an oil painter, Homer supplemented his income with illustrations and watercolor, and was a member of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors (Blaugrund 42). In the 1870s Homer switched his artistic focus from elements of war to those of the natural world and American life. In both oils and watercolor, Homer became America’s pre-eminent seascapist, and today he is most remembered by his depictions of marine life (Starr 354). He was also master of the sporting genre, and “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” (“Winslow Homer Biography”). In 1876 he began his “Adirondack pictures” with The Two Guides and, toward the end of the decade, he painted “several pictures of negro life in Virginia” (Downes).

Homer traveled around Europe and spent a year in Tynmouth, England before settling in Maine (Blaugrund 39). Despite his association with the bohemian community, Homer was known to prefer solitude and lived by himself in an oceanside property in Prout’s Neck, ME for many years until his death. Arthur Hoeber tells several anecdotes of admirers, from established artists to students, who tried and failed to enter the studio of the fiercely private genius (Hoeber 14009). His later works, which “concentrate on the beauty, force, and drama of the sea itself,” were among the most admired of his works and remain so today (Weinberg). When he died in 1910, Homer left behind an unfinished work, Shoot the Rapids and numerous paintings and watercolors that are still in demand today. Homer is considered the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century.