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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It seems that way when you stand before The Wreck of the Iron Crown, which Homer carefully packed and shipped home to his Boston dealer in February 1882, with a $250 price tag. The picture still radiates a feeling of tension as the Iron Crown teeters on the edge of destruction: the sand stings, the surf thunders, the black sky bears down on the ship—and all these years later, the viewer involuntarily shudders.

Homer's eerie ability to convey the mood of the moment is one of the reasons his work endures. "You feel that you're feeling what Homer wanted you to feel," says Tedeschi. "If it's a sunny meadow, you're in that sunny meadow. If it's a marine subject, you feel the sea breeze and hear the surf. I wouldn't call it realism. I'd call it a kind of veracity. Especially in his watercolors, he produces a very convincing aura, which often includes a clear sense of what the temperature is, what the air movement is like, where the light is coming from. You just let yourself feel it, which is very satisfying."

His sojourn in Cullercoats, which occupied Homer for almost two years, greatly broadened his range of expression. Once known as the chronicler of American childhood and farm life, Homer grappled with weightier concerns in England. There he began to consider the precarious place of humans in the natural order. He produced at least 55 watercolors while living on the North Sea and completed another 20 or so based on Cullercoats after his return to the United States in 1882. They were more sophisticated, more finished, more subtle and larger than anything he had attempted before. He spent hours closely observing the light and gauging the weather, made careful preliminary sketches, reworked them in his studio and sometimes finished them outdoors with a model in tow, just as the desired conditions of light, weather and atmosphere fell into place. "I would in a couple of hours, with the thing right before me, secure the truth of the whole impression," he told a friend.

Homer came to admire the hardy men and women who wrested their living from the sea, risking their lives each day. They march through his pictures with their baskets, mend their nets and converse quietly from boat to boat on calm evenings. And day after day, they look anxiously to sea under racing clouds, waiting and watching for a loved one's boat to appear. Homer celebrates the dignity of his Cullercoats subjects, the fragility of their lives and the raw power of the natural world in which they exist—themes he would explore in other settings and by other means again and again.

His English stay proved transformative, says Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., a Homer biographer and the former senior curator of American and British painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. "It's hard to think of such an extraordinary change in another artist. His figures become more classical, more sculptural; his subjects more heroic; his outlook more epic; his meaning more serious. The work gets physically larger." For the business-minded Homer, bigger pictures meant bigger paychecks: "I will send you some water colors—large size & price," he wrote to a Boston dealer in October 1881, two months before shipping 30 new sheets to him. "You can keep them in a portfolio or have an exhibition as you think best."

The dealer, J. Eastman Chase, quickly arranged a show for February 1882, to good reviews. Homer's new work, the Boston Evening Transcript reported, was "positively exhilarating." More shows and favorable notices followed. "Homer is both the historian and poet of the sea and sea-coast life," said one critic. The influential Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, writing in The Century Magazine, described Homer's Cullercoats watercolors as "not only...the most complete and beautiful things he has yet produced, but among the most interesting [that] American art has yet created."

Much to Homer's delight, the English works sold well in America, where he was soon earning as much as $250 per watercolor, up from the $50 to $75 he had commanded at the start of his career. "You will see," he confided to a friend, "in the future I will live by my watercolors." Homer's prediction proved to be prophetic on two levels: watercolors made him famous in his own time, and they paid the bills, which freed him to lavish months, even years, on such monumental oil paintings as The Fox Hunt, The Herring Net, Lost on the Grand Banks and Northeaster.

All of these oils were painted in Prout's Neck, Maine, a rocky peninsula battered by the North Atlantic and situated about ten miles south of Portland. Homer settled there in 1883, shortly after his return to the United States. He was drawn to the Maine coast for its harsh beauty, its dramatic equinoctial storms and its isolation. It was also convenient. His family had bought land and established summer homes there: Homer's parents moved in with his eldest brother, Charles, while middle brother Arthur built his own place nearby. The living arrangements soon became too crowded for Winslow, who commandeered a carriage house from one of the properties, had it moved up the shore and converted it into the plain home and studio that became the center of his world for the rest of his life. One special feature of the house was its covered balcony, "braced so as to hold a complete Sunday school picknick," in Homer's phrase. This piazza, which offered a commanding view of the ocean, became a favorite roost for Homer, who haunted it for hours on end, staring out to sea, observing the incessant war between waves and rocks, the raw material for future work.

His time in Cullercoats had taught Homer not only new ways of seeing but also new ways of living. He discovered that he worked best alone, away from the social demands of an urban environment. He felt a special affinity for the independent farmers and fishermen of Prout's Neck. They were blessedly scarce on the ground, they respected his privacy and, like him, they worked with their hands.

"All of his life Homer was attracted to working people," says Tedeschi. "He was a worker himself. He had no great pretensions about who he was or what he was. Other workers fished. He worked in paint." Indeed, in the rare instances when Homer spoke about his art, he used the language of labor: his studio was a "painting factory"; he produced not art but "goods" to be sold.


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