The mature works of Winslow Homer: the sea and its associations.
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The quintessential American painter of the XIX century, Winslow Homer, is mainly famous for his maritime subjects. Born in Cambridge, Boston, on February 24, 1836, where he grew up, his father was a businessman and his mother was a talented watercolorist.
Mainly self-taught, Homer started his work as a freelance illustrator, living for some time in New York. He produced hundreds of illustrations for the magazine Harpers’ Weekly which, eventually, assigned him to cover the Civil War as an artist-correspondent. He was deeply affected by the horrors he had seen there. At this time, he had started painting in oil. Back from the war he spent some more time in New York, before moving to Paris for a 10-month stay.
In France, he painted rural scenes and drew illustrations of the Parisian life. He was also able to get acquainted with the new artistic movements which were taking place at the time. As an artist, however, he never acknowledged the influence of any mentors or subscribed to any artistic movement. He was very independent and thought that an artist should never incorporate other painters’ style in his work. He favored watercolors in this phase of his paintings. One can see, however, that during his time in Paris, he seems to have had exposure to and been affected by the Japanese art - which was also influencing painters like Van Gogh and Gauguin at the same time in France – especially concerning the simplification, flattening of perspectives and reduction of its subjects to the bare minimum in his more mature works.
He took another trip to Europe in 1881, choosing England as his destination this time, where he lived for a couple of years. Meanwhile his family started to vacation at Prout’s Neck on the beautiful rugged coast of Maine. They fell in love with the place and began to buy property there with the aim of building a family compound.
In England, Homer lived in the coastal city of Tynemouth in the northeastern part of the country, facing the North Sea. It was there that he began to enjoy and appreciate the lives of fishermen and their direct contact with Nature. The ocean started to mean a lot to Homer. He started to engage with the full force and beauty of nature reflected in the break of waves, the spray of water over rocks, their rolling and violent energy, the clouds gathering over the sea and the occasional storms. He had found the subject matter that would take his art to a whole new level: the fragility of men in confrontationwith the overwhelming forces of Nature, represented mainly by the ocean.
Back in the US in 1883, he was happy to move to his family compound at Prout’s Neck, where he lived until the end of his life. Although he had produced some genre, more light-hearted, paintings in the 1860s and 1870s, his works became a lot more powerful and darker when he came to Maine. There, he could continue his study of nature, started in England, focusing on the sea and its people, the fishermen and their women. The paintings produced at this time are the strongest works of his career. During these years, he took frequent trips to the Caribbean and would go constantly to the Adirondacks and Canada to fish and enjoy nature. Besides Prout’s Neck, these places feature beautifully in his ouvre. He was actually a pioneer in painting the tropics, sinceGauguin had not been there yet.
It is interesting to point out the contrasts between the works of Homer and photography, which was a fully developed technique at the time. The function of realistic art, according to Homer, was to select, build upon and simplify what the eye of the camera merely captured. Artists mustn’t copy reality as their eyes saw it. They should paint from memory, making adjustments that expressed their inner selves, choosing and simplifying what to show. This is what made his paintings more powerful and evocative than mere photographs. Homer stressed only what mattered, imbuing it with his visionand aesthetic sense.
Although he loved the outdoors, spending a lot of time enjoying nature, walking, fishing, watching sunsets, bathing in the moonlight, and probably doing some sketching, Homer was essentially a studio painter. Most of his painting was produced or finalized indoors, from memory or based on simple sketches. This is why we can say that he was a realist, but not a naturalist in the sense of copying what his eyes could see exactly as it was. Reality was transformed and simplified in his paintings, getting larger than life andconveying a deeper meaning.
As he grew older his artistic output reduced progressively, he seemed to be satisfied with and proud of what he had already accomplished. He felt no need to produce a lot more as he approached death. He loved Prout’s Neck and led a peaceful and fulfilled life there. “The life that I have chosen gives me my full hours of enjoyment for the balanceof my life. The Sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks.
He died on September 29, 1910.