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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Homer's hardworking habits won the respect of his neighbors at Prout's Neck, who even came to accept his strange ways—his walking backward on the beach squinting at the sky, his pacing the balcony alone at night, his refusal to answer the door, his congenital frankness, his compulsive hoarding. He had six kerosene stoves, and he received a never-ending stream of supplies by mail—cases of fruit, barrels of cider, legs of mutton and, in one memorable shipment, 144 pairs of socks. Portland's best tailor dispatched a new pair of pants to him every month. Even on the wild coast of Maine, he remained something of a dandy, dressing sharp, decorating his lapel with a flower and bounding over the surf-lashed rocks in a tam-o'-shanter, complete with pompom. His constant companion on these excursions was a fat terrier named Sam, who came to look like a white pig as he grew older, gasping in Homer's wake. Homer slowed his pace so that Sam could catch up, which the neighbors noted approvingly.

When he painted outside, Homer made a sign to discourage inquisitive spectators: "Snakes Snakes Mice!" proclaimed the warning, planted on the beach path and aimed primarily at summer residents who lacked the circumspection of year-rounders. He slept with a pistol—this in a place where crime was virtually unknown. "I am a dead shot & should shoot, without asking any questions, if anyone was in my house after 12 at night," he declared. Nobody disturbed him.

Homer seemed to thrive in his solitude. "This is [the] only life in which I am permitted to mind my own business," he told a friend shortly after moving to Prout's Neck. "I suppose I am today the only man in New England who can do it." He elaborated in a letter to his brother Charles: "The sun will not rise, nor set, without my notice, and thanks."

Yet Homer must have been lonely when the emphatic Maine winter roared in, his relatives scattered and he faced the empty months with little human contact. He bore down on his painting, took long walks, admired the ocean storms and scribbled on the walls. He drank deeply, stopped and started again. "The trouble was I thought that for a change I would give up drinking," he joked in 1903. It was "a great mistake & although I reduced the size of my nose & improved my beauty my stomach suffered."

Given the number of handsome women who appear in Homer's work, many researchers have wondered why he remained a lifelong bachelor. He was characteristically silent on the subject, but generations of scholars have speculated, based on suggestive but inconclusive evidence, that one of his models may have broken Homer's heart, crushing his romantic ambitions and setting him to wander.

With Prout's Neck his safe harbor and home base, Homer would continue wandering for the rest of his life, gathering artistic material as he went. An avid fly fisherman, he packed off to Quebec or the Adirondacks on trouting campaigns, and to Florida, the Bahamas and other tropical locations—always with his battered watercolor kit in hand.

Like other urban refugees who ventured into the wilderness for rejuvenation, Homer came to rely upon these backwoods forays. The excursions also provided another market for his watercolors, which were snapped up by anglers, hunters and a growing community of outdoor enthusiasts. Ever conscious of commercial opportunities, Homer planned sporting vacations with them in mind.

"I send you by the American Ex. today six watercolors of fishing subjects," he announced to his New York dealer in April 1901. "They may be of interest to the fishermen now turned loose for Spring fishing. If you know any fishermen call their attention to them." Another springtime, another excursion: "As I shall go up for the Spring fishing," he reported to the same dealer in 1903, "I will take my sketch block & will give you a full line of goods for next season."

His "goods" from the North Woods Club in Essex County, New York, where Homer fished for many years, were noted for their fluidity, their understated grace and their feeling for the empty spaces—where a brook trout sails through the air to nab a fly, a majestic buck swims through an October pond, a pair of Adirondack guides drift in their boat on a perfect summer's day, masters of their environment.

Yet Homer's images are seldom as simple as they appear. His leaping trout hangs in that decisive moment between freedom and death; his North Woods guides represent a rugged individualism threatened by modern ways; his swimming buck is hounded by a hunter and his dog, almost unnoticed in the background of Homer's watercolor. Even when he was grinding out works for the hook-and-bullet set, Homer often layered his art with an element of uncertainty or irony.


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