Winslow Homer, an American painter, is considered one of the greatest pioneer artists of the late 19th century. His paintings brought life and color to the American wilderness for those who had never seen it, and his dramatic paintings of man interacting with nature inspired countless landscape artists after him. His paintings depicted daily life in the Americas, the Civil War, life on homesteads, the Northeastern wilderness, and the rough Atlantics seas. A specialty of Homer’s was to paint life “as it happened,” not just the stillness of a scene. This technique makes his artwork more compelling than a typical landscape scene.
Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1836. His mother was an amateur painter, and it was she who first taught him the basics of painting. When he was a teenager, Homer found work as a lithographer’s apprentice, where he further refined his drawing skills. Eventually, he was able to attend the National Academy of Design in New York, where he began submitting his artwork to Harper’s Weekly magazine.
Harper’s admired his talent, and when the Civil War erupted in the American South, the magazine commissioned Homer to follow the Union campaign across the nation and sketch military life. The drawings Homer created during the war were later turned into paintings, and became realistic recordings of life on the war front. Below are some of his sketches of the war.
|Water Call, 1864. Lithographic card|
|Surgeon’s Call, 1864. Lithographic card|
These early sketches are somewhat satirical and
humorous. Critics believe this style of Homer’s was intended to be humorous to provide
a sense of relief from the seriousness of the war. In Water Call and Surgeon’s Call,
the settings remain true to the realities of the war, but the subjects are somewhat
exaggerated. In contrast, in his later paintings of the war, Homer illustrates
the heaviness life in the camps, achieved through the combination of dark,
still scenery with the reserved dispositions of his subjects.
|The Bright Side, 1865. Oil on canvas|
After the war, Homer returned to his New England roots. His subsequent paintings have a strong focus on man versus nature, and depict the powerful beauty of the wilderness surrounding humble subjects. In the majority of his later paintings, the contrast between the single subject and the vibrant scenery around him is evident. In paintings like the one below, the power of nature holds much of the viewer’s attention while the subject remains the center. This stark contrast of darks and lights aligns with Homer’s interest in the power of nature.
|The Gulf Stream, 1899. Oil on canvas|
Throughout his painting career, Homer used both oil and watercolor as mediums. At the time of the Civil War, watercolor was viewed as an “amateur’s medium,” while oil was seen as much more sophisticated. Winslow Homer is credited with the rise of watercolor’s popularity as a professional medium, with his intricate forest and river paintings done entirely in watercolor. In the painting below, Homer once again uses color and light to contrast the power of the landscape with the humble subject.
|Old Friends, 1892. Watercolor|
I chose to study Homer because I enjoy landscape paintings. Homer’s paintings are special to me because of the way he uses color to portray the shadows and highlights of the landscape. I also like that his paintings are very realistic and detailed, which is something I hope to have in my artwork. I also enjoy working with watercolor, and by studying his paintings I can learn new techniques for this style.
Works Cited (MLA)
Greenhill, Jennifer A. “Winslow Homer and the Mechanics of Visual Deadpan.” Art History, vol. 32, no. 2, Apr. 2009, pp. 351-386. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.2009.00671.x.
Cole TB. The Bright SideWinslow Homer. JAMA. 2016;315(24):2650–2651. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.14333
Muente, Tamera Lenz. “True-hearted men: Winslow Homer’ s Adirondacks watercolors reveal both kind and cruel men grappling with nature at its most primitive.” Watercolor Artist, Feb.-Mar. 2012, p. 62+. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=ITOF&u=duke_perkins&id=GALE|A342767712&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&authCount=1#