Gawking at the love lives of public figures–from Brangelina to Eliot Spitzer–is something of a national pastime these days, and things weren't much different during the lifetime of celebrated American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
While prolific in depicting the outside world, Homer adamantly refused to reveal his inner landscape to an increasingly curious public throughout his career. Perhaps that is why, nearly a century after his death, we're still interested: Secrecy often suggests something worth concealing.
Homer himself hinted at this sentiment in a 1908 note to a would-be biographer: "I think that it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear–and as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it."
Although Homer remained a bachelor for all of his 74 years, after his death, one of his close friends told biographer Lloyd Goodrich that the artist "had the usual number of love affairs." No conclusive evidence is available about any of these, but a thin trail of emotional clues exists amid Homer's correspondence with friends and family, as well as in his work.
The first such clue comes in a March 1862 letter to his father, Charles Savage Homer. The young Homer is planning to travel to Washington to illustrate Civil War action for Harper's Weekly, and mentions a comment made by his editor: "He thinks (I am) smart and will do well if (I) meet no pretty girls down there, which he thinks I have a weakness for."
Homer spent ten months in France in 1866-7, and had an active social life there, if his vivacious engravings of Parisian dance halls are any indication (see above sketch). For the next five or six years, back in America, he continued to paint generally cheerful, lively scenes, often featuring pretty young women.
"The numerous portrayals of fetching women suggest a longing for feminine company…these scenes may have been this shy man's way of safely bringing women closer," Randall Griffin wrote in his 2006 book Winslow Homer: An American Vision.
Specifically, it seems the painter yearned to be closer to Helena De Kay, an art student and the sister of Homer's friend Charles De Kay. She was the apparent model for several of Homer's works in the early 1870s, until she married the poet and editor Richard Watson Gilder in 1874.
As fine arts scholar Sarah Burns explained in a 2002 article for The Magazine ANTIQUES, Helena De Kay's correspondence shows how Homer may have tried to court her. Homer often asked her to visit his studio, an invitation he rarely extended to anyone, and she is the only painter he ever offered to instruct (though there is no evidence she accepted). In one note, he even compared a photo of her to a Beethoven symphony, "as any remembrance of you will always be."
Perhaps Homer's circa 1872 oil "Portrait of Helena De Kay" reflects his realization that he would likely lose his beloved to Gilder, who began courting her that year. It was an unusual work for Homer's style up to then – a somber, formal portrait, and an uncommissioned one at that.