Hidden Depths

Winslow Homer took watercolors to new levels. A Chicago exhibition charts the elusive New Englander’s mastery

Searching for new ways of seeing, Homer settled in Cullercoats, England, where he created heroic views of his neighbors (Four Fishwives, 1881) in watercolor. (Scripps College, Claremont, CA, gift of the General and Mrs. Edward Clinton Young)
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The storm pounded in from the North Sea on October 20, 1881, picked up the Iron Crown like a toy and drove the 1,000-ton bark onto the shoals near Tynemouth, on the Northumbrian coast of England. Hundreds of villagers rushed to the Life Brigade House to launch rescue operations.

As night melted into the morning of October 21, members of the life brigade wrestled a boat into the surf and managed to bring 20 people from the Iron Crown to safety. With all but one of the ship's hands accounted for, all eyes turned back to the battered vessel. There the lonely figure of Carl Kopp, a crewman thought to have been washed overboard, appeared on deck, clinging to the ship with one hand and waving with the other. The weary life brigade took up their oars again, plunged back into the sea and brought him ashore.

As this seaside drama rushed toward its denouement, a horse-drawn cab pulled up to the wharf. A dapper little man with perfect posture and a swooping mustache emerged, made his way quietly through the crowd and staked out an observation point overlooking the harbor. Then Winslow Homer produced a pad of paper and a piece of charcoal, sat down and quickly began to sketch salient details of the scene before him—women in shawls leaning into the wind; fishermen in dripping sou'westers scrutinizing the stricken ship; rescuers rowing a lifeboat up through a mountain of water; the Iron Crown wallowing in the distant surf. Homer's view of the ship would be one of the last. Its masts collapsed. It broke into pieces and sank. "Nothing was to be seen of her afterwards," a local newspaper reported, "beyond portions of her stem and stern heaving like black shadows on the water, alternately obliterated by the lashing sea."

Homer disappeared with his sketches, returned to his studio in the fishing village of Cullercoats and set to work immortalizing the life-and-death struggle he had just witnessed. He rendered the scene in a palette of solemn gray, brown and ocher, with raging seas and menacing skies dominating the picture. As he often did, he reduced the subject to a few essentials—gone were the men and women he had sketched on shore; gone was the sturdy stone wharf underfoot; gone was any reference to land at all. Homer plunged the viewer right into the churning sea, along with the tiny humans struggling against it. What is remarkable is that he chose to produce The Wreck of the Iron Crown in watercolor, a delicate medium then generally considered to be the weapon of choice for amateur artists, at least in Homer's native America. But he seldom played by the rules.

"This resolute New Englander didn't care a fig that watercolor was an amateur's medium, taught to polite young ladies in finishing schools," says Martha Tedeschi, curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she helped organize an exhibition of some 100 Homer watercolors and 30 associated works (through May 11). "In fact," says Tedeschi, "its marginal status quite suited him. Watercolor offered liberation from the stifling academic rules and public expectations that governed oil painting."

Age 45 when he appeared in Cullercoats, Homer was already recognized for his achievements at home, but he was clearly eager to improve his artistic reach. Most likely, he went abroad to escape the social distractions of New York City, to search for fresh subjects and to explore new ways of presenting them. This is pure speculation because the sometimes reclusive Homer was notoriously unrevealing about his personal affairs, his methods of painting and his artistic intentions. "Mind your own business!" were his four favorite words, according to a friend.

Despite this, some details of the mystery man's life are clear. Born in Boston in 1836, he learned the rudiments of watercolor from his mother, Henrietta, and a practical appreciation of business from his father, Charles Savage Homer, a hardware merchant who encouraged his son to serve an apprenticeship with a Boston lithographer. This taught Winslow drawing and led to his work as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly, for which he covered the Civil War. He produced powerful oil paintings from the conflict and its aftermath, and won critical acclaim for the originality, honesty and energy of his work. Largely self-taught, he started in 1873 to experiment in the tricky idiom of watercolor, which he would make part of his artistic language for the rest of his life. He produced some 700 known watercolors by the time of his death in 1910. His supremacy in the medium was undisputed by then, and so it remains today, as evidenced by the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, the largest gathering of his watercolors in more than two decades.

Given the fragility of watercolor pigments, which fade when exposed to light, the Chicago show provides a rare opportunity to see many of Homer's works in one place, collected from private owners and museums around the country. The exhibition also tracks how the artist mastered the medium over three decades; how he used it to experiment with subjects he would enlarge upon in oils; how he incorporated a compact watercolor kit into his far-flung painting excursions; and how the medium became a ready source of income for the ever-practical Homer, who could produce watercolors more cheaply, more quickly and in greater quantity than he could bulky, slow-drying oil paintings. The show also sheds light on Homer's pioneering use of scraping, sponging, sanding, blotting and other reductive techniques to put foam in his waves, mist in his skies and a glint in the eye of an Adirondack guide.

"A much richer picture of Winslow Homer emerges from this exhibition," says the show's curator, Tedeschi. Conservators at the Institute spent part of the past two years performing technical analyses of selected Homer watercolors, scrutinizing them with microscopes, X-rays, infrared light and other diagnostic tools to unlock a few of the master's secrets. (See p. 90.) Such high-tech intrusions would no doubt have driven Homer to apoplexy, but in Tedeschi's view, the new research only heightens the artist's standing.

"It reinforces his genius," she says. "Homer has long been admired as a watercolorist capable of painting quickly to record the most immediate and ephemeral sensations. Yet, as our line of inquiry indicated, his watercolor practice was also full of experimentation—studying, reworking and planning. While part of his genius was his ability to make his watercolors look effortless, they are often the result of complex and even labored artistic planning. But he never sacrifices that feeling of immediacy. You never see all the hard work behind the images. I think that makes his achievement even more miraculous."


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