Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is one of America's best known artists in watercolors. Taught to paint by his artist mother, Homer was apprenticed in 1855 to the Boston lithographer John Bufford, and by 1857 was freelancing as an illustrator to New York periodicals such as Harper's Weekly. He moved to New York in 1859 and took evening classes at the National Academy of Design (until 1861), then worked as a war correspondent (illustrator) with the Union Army, producing illustrations and paintings on Civil War themes throughout the 1860's and 1870's. Elected to the National Academy in 1864, he sojourned in Paris for most of 1867, absorbing works by the Barbizon school of plein air landscape painters, and exhibiting two oils at the Universal Exposition in Paris. He consolidated his reputation as an oil painter to mixed reviews (some complained of his dull colors and lack of finish). Homer began painting in watercolors at age 37, during a summer trip to Gloucester (Massachusetts) in 1873. He added steadily to this work during summer trips in New England in the 1870's, culminating in a critically successful but not very profitable showing of his watercolors at the 1879 exhibition of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors (ASPWC), which Homer had joined in 1876. Thereafter, probably to free himself from entry deadlines and critical reviews, Homer sold most of his works through gallery representation. He spent nearly two years at the English fishing village and popular artists' colony of Cullercoats (Northumberland, 1881-82), producing over 150 watercolors in a dark and monumental style. Always intensely reclusive (a lifelong bachelor and often testy to strangers), in 1884 Homer settled on the remote, storm raked coast of Prout's Neck, Maine (about 10 miles south of Portland) where he lived alone in a refurbished, mansard roofed stable on the Homer family estate. An avid fisherman, he made the first of many winter fishing and painting trips to Nassau and Cuba (in 1885) and Florida (1885-86). Thereafter he focused primarily on landscape and wildlife watercolors painted during summer trips to the Adirondacks (New York) or Quebec, and winter trips to Nassau (1898), Bermuda (1899 and 1901) and Florida (1890 and 1903), where he painted his last watercolors. During this period he exhibited oils and watercolors at the National Academy and major exhibitions, but to mixed commercial and critical success. His work was curtailed by a paralytic stroke in 1908, and he died at his home in Prout's Neck in 1910.


Homer took up watercolors in 1873 (at age 37), apparently as a way to get past his growing dissatisfaction with the commercial return from his oil paintings and the "treadmill existence" of his illustration work. He may also have been inspired by the popular success of a huge exhibition of nearly 600 European and American watercolors held by the ASPWC at the National Academy in 1873, which confirmed the significance of the American "watercolor movement." Homer usually painted series or groups of paintings on related themes at a single location — at first as an organized program to explore and master the watercolor medium (he relied on popular watercolor manuals such as Ruskin's Elements of Drawing to teach himself to paint), but later as part of his observational artistic approach. His early paintings in New England are mostly traditional genre paintings, such as his figure studies of rural young women and boys; but Homer often appears to be experimenting with composition, color design, and lighting effects, because these change from one series to the next. (An unusual set done at Gloucester in 1880 emphasizes nautical sunsets and night scenes in impressionist "primary triad" color schemes.) These early works culminate in the English paintings of 1881-82, deemed "the most complete and beautiful things he has yet produced" by his contemporaries, of which Fisher Girls, Cullercoats (1881, 33x49cm) is typical. The crisp outlines, minimal details and strong value contrasts are traditional design elements Homer learned from his work as an illustrator. In most respects his watercolor technique is also traditional, starting with a careful pencil drawing and using a minimal palette (in many cases limited to yellow ochre, burnt sienna, light red or venetian red, prussian blue, and ivory black). Homer adopts the informal, homely "sketch" watercolor style, filling the picture with large wash areas that are frequently blotted, scraped or accented with blossoms or other watermarks, and using drybrush in the foreground to reveal the paper's surface texture. This is in sharp contrast to the painstaking "finish" preferred by advanced Victorian watercolorists, such as the stippling methods perfected by Miles Birket Foster. But Homer's rough informality is a rhetorical stance, like the poet Walt Whitman's homespun diction: the Cullercoats watercolors are not quick "notes and memoranda" but, like his oils, were often worked up from preliminary sketches in charcoal. And Homer brings his simple means together in a strong and memorable visual statement that is, like Whitman's poetry, rhapsodic and idealized. The fishing women waiting to unload the day's catch are modeled as ideals of strength and patience in the face of the unpredictable elements; their bare arms and relaxed stance suggest their indifference to the wind that billows the distant sails or the wet chill reflected in the soaked beach sand. The spirit of this picture well illustrates one of Homer's most characteristic themes: humanity's resilience to the challenges of nature.

With his reputation as America's foremost watercolorist and a reasonable income secured by the success of the Cullercoats paintings, in 1885 Homer made his first painting trip to Florida and Cuba with his father and brother. The Caribbean light had an invigorating and lightening effect on his palette, and his imagery — ripe oranges on a tree, coconut palms, tropical birds, sponge divers immersed in water and bright sun — is more sensual and vivid. Homer also evolved toward a more direct presentation of landscape, without human figures to mediate the relationship between nature and the viewer. Shore at Bermuda (1899, 35x54cm), one of a dozen Homer watercolors purchased by the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the Brooklyn Museum) in 1912, uses Homer's favorite (and very traditional) division of the image into three horizontal sections of sky, sea and land. He chooses to leave large areas of the image as flat passages of color: the sea is unbroken by waves, reflections, or ornamental ships, and the sky is only lightly ornamented with clouds. The low gray wall at far right and the four clumps of vegetation linked by shadows forcefully introduce a sense of sloping recession into what would otherwise be a static design. They lead the eye down to the crisply silhouetted white buildings, accented by a tiny red figure in a dark doorway. This painting is so stripped down and succinctly stated that the Institute's stodgy fine arts curator misclassified it as a "painter's sketch," but there is nothing important to add to this image of nature's vast scale and radiant but terribly blank face. Homer's pristine white color and miniature scale nicely describe the artificiality and fragility of human habitation exposed to the huge expanse of sea and sky. The extreme simplicity of design and statement is equally important in the works of Edward Hopper, another illustrator turned artist who learned much from Homer's landscape works.

Besides his well known Caribbean pictures, Homer painted many lovely sportsman landscapes during his Adirondack or Canadian fishing expeditions — scenery that was already familiar to Americans from Currier & Ives prints and wilderness books. In many of his wildlife portraits of hunted game, Homer contemplates anguish and death — themes he had struggled with many years before in his Civil War paintings. But most paintings show one or two idealized figures cast against a large natural backdrop; humans and nature coexist in an expansive harmony reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau. The hunters in The Blue Boat (1892, 39x55cm) were modeled after two commercial guides who worked the Adirondack tourist trade (wilderness trips were especially popular at the time as the recreation of affluent urban businessmen). But they have been idealized to suggest a continuity of American generations in pursuit of the outdoors, and a spirit of adventure in the face of the vast American wilderness — the younger hunter's cocked elbow is twin to the Cullercoats girl. This is one of Homer's most confident works: the painting is laid over a minimal pencil sketch, and there are no signs of revisions or mended errors. The brushwork in the near trees, water reflections and grasses approaches the brisk skill of John Singer Sargent, but the composition has a foursquare strength and stability that is unique to Homer. A stately, grand effect is created by the way depth is shown in the descending rows of clouds, the high cropping of distant hills and the declining height of the briskly noted trees. The greens behind the hunters are mixed quickly on the page and modelled with touches of earth pigments and prussian blue. The ripples and reflections in the water are deftly rendered, often with single strokes of a brush and with a skimming touch that highlights the paper's texture. The ordered progression of clouds matches the series of large ripples in the water, and connects the high movement of air with the river currents that take the boatmen on their journey; the three nearest trees echo the profile of the two boatmen and the visible oar. These and other visual parallels tie the entire image together, creating a profound sense of wholeness and harmony.

Homer's critical reception was uneven: the Boston writer Henry James was often negative, conceding in 1875 only that "he is almost barbarously simple, and he is horribly ugly; but there is nevertheless something one likes about him." And the arch modernist Alfred Stieglitz dismissed his work as "nothing more than the highest type of illustration." Although Homer was widely respected as an American master at his death, and his paintings were collected by knowing connoisseurs and museums, the advanced European trends exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913 immediately made Homer's work seem antiquated and sentimental. His exaltation of hunting and the human struggle with nature seemed quaint to a 20th century enamoured with machines, speed and skyscrapers. But Homer's watercolors repay study for their masterfully stated color schemes, serenely balanced designs, assertive and confident use of watercolor's spontaneous effects, and accurately observed yet poetically idealized images of humanity in nature.

The primary resource for a study of Homer's watercolors is the catalog for the 1986 National Gallery exhibition: Winslow Homer Watercolors by Helen Cooper (Yale University Press, 1986). This contains a full biography, with a study of the evolving importance of watercolors in Homer's career; the selection of paintings is generous but far from exhaustive. Additional works with an alert commentary can be found in Awash in Color: Homer, Sargent and the Great American Watercolor by Sue Welsh Reed & Carolyn Troyen (Bulfinch Press, 1993). Homer's relationship to his contemporaries and posterity is described in Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent and the American Watercolor Movement by Linda Ferber & Barbara Dayer Gallati (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998).