Happy Birthday Winslow Homer, Still A Favorite American Artist

Winslow Homer’s paintings are just as relevant and wistful today as they were in the years he stood on the rocky shores of Prout’s Neck, Maine. He was trending on Twitter today, and it is evident from some of the comments that he is still wields a tremendous influence on realism.

“Winslow Homer was born on this day, February 24, 1836.” Post after post makes this statement, while displaying some favored piece. He was best known for his dynamic seascapes, and was prolific in both oils and watercolor. He was a great painter of nature, and it is important to note that he was a plein air painter. In those days, they didn’t use photographs. He painted days with high wind, snow, and low light, and he was right out in it.

Homer wasn’t born into wealth. His father had gone through a number of failed business ventures, setting a perfect example of how not to be when one grew up. The young Winslow was determined not to follow suit. Since he had some talent as an artist, he signed up for an apprenticeship as a a commercial lithographer with a company in Boston called Bufford’s. For two years, he learned the ins and outs of the printing trade. But according to Writer’s Almanac, he hated the work and left on his 21st birthday.

He moved to New York City, probably attracted to the artistic community there. He opened a studio on Tenth Street and began illustrating periodicals. Harper’s Weekly hired him as a freelancer. They were a new magazine and they offered him a salaried position, but he said no.

“The slavery at Bufford’s was too fresh in my recollection to let me care to bind myself again. From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and never shall have any.”

During those years, the Civil war was raging and the magazine sent Homer to the front lines to draw illustrations of men on the battlefield. The Smithsonian describes how Homer made several trips to the front in Virginia, and sailed with the Army of the Potomac. He stayed with them for two months, and documented their daily lifestyle with his drawings. He was present during the siege of Yorktown and the Battle of Fair Oaks.

It must have been a coming-of-age time for him. He did many illustrations of the soldiers in pencil, ink and watercolor wash, and then, back in New York, he graduated to oil paintings based on his sketches. But his subject matter began to turn to country scenes, evolving away from war and city life. He was especially drawn to the ocean. Writer’s Almanac reports that novelist Henry James did not appreciate the change.

“We frankly confess that we detest his subjects — his barren plank fences, his glaring, bold blue skies […] his freckled, straight-haired Yankee urchins, his flat-breasted maidens, suggestive of a dish of rural doughnuts and pie. He has chosen the least pictorial features of the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization.”

Critics disagreed. Wikipedia describes how his popular 1872 painting, Snap-the-Whip, was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as was his now iconic painting of a father and sons in a sailboat, called, Breezing Up. The New York Tribune praised his painting, Breezing Up.

“There is no picture in this exhibition, nor can we remember when there has been a picture in any exhibition, that can be named alongside this.”

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Homer was growing in fame and notoriety for his simple, unsentimental illustrations of fishermen and farmers, women and children. He remained self-taught, and was resolutely private about his personal life. In 1875, he quit working commercially, determined to survive on his own merits as an artist.

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He continued to struggle financially, and speculation arose that he had had a difficult time with women, because he became a recluse near the end of that decade. It may have been this, and two years in England, that influenced his paintings into bigger, more somber works. He had attained a certain artistic maturity.

His final home was in his beloved Prout’s Neck, Maine, where he labored under the burden of an aging father. Winslow earned the nickname of, “hermit with a brush.” He did escape to Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas, over some winters, and his work reflected the change in scenery.

In 1900, following the death of his father, he finally reached some financial stability when museums began purchasing his art. He lived for the next ten years at Prout’s Neck.

The Winslow Homer Studio is now a national historic landmark, hosted by the Portland Museum. It offers guided tours, where guests can go and celebrate the life of a great American artist.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain]