Winslow Homer, Stowing Sail, Bahamas, 1903, Watercolor and graphite with touches of scraping on ivory wove paper, 355 x 554 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Winslow Homer, Prout's Neck, Evening, 1883/1890, Watercolor over traces of graphite on off-white wove paper. 359 x 536 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Winslow Homer, For to Be a Farmer's Boy, 1887, Watercolor with touches of scraping, over graphite on cream wove paper, 355 x 509 mm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. George T. Langhorne in memory of Edward Carson Waller.
Winslow Homer, North Woods Club, NY, 1892, Watercolor with scraping over graphite on ivory wove paper, 381 x 545 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Winslow Homer, The Water Fan, 1898/1899, Watercolor with graphite on off-white wove paper, 374 x 534 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Dorothy A., John A., Jr., and Christopher Holabird in memory of William and Mary Holabird.
Winslow Homer, Coast of Maine, Detail, 1893, Oil on canvas, 610 x 762 mm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection.
Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
and Galleries 271-273
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light
February 16-May 10, 2008
Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light presents 130 works that reveal Homer’s mastery of watercolor, exploring how he unlocked secrets of the medium over three decades. In preparation for this exhibition, curators, conservators, and conservation scientists at the Art Institute spent years examining Homer’s watercolor techniques and materials, using the museum collection as a basis for inquiry. The works and research are shown in the context of over 100 watercolors, drawings, and oil paintings that explore the artist’s important subjects and sites and his interest in color and light.
The exhibition is organized around the different sites where the artist worked that invite viewers both to look closely at Homer’s watercolor techniques and step back to appreciate how he adapted his light effects and color palette to the settings where he worked. In an uncanny way, Homer’s watercolors ring true, capturing tangible sensations of each environment.
Homer (February 24, 1836-September 29, 1910) was noted for marine subjects and considered one of the foremost painters in 19th century America, and a preeminent figure in American art.
Largely self-taught, Homer began his career working as a commercial illustrator, and subsequently took up oil painting, producing major works in the studio characterized by the weight and density he exploited from the medium, and watercolor, with which he created a fluid and prolific oeuvre primarily chronicling his working vacations.
Born in Boston, Homer was the second of three sons for Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer, herself a gifted amateur watercolorist and Homer's first teacher. He apprenticed to a Boston commercial lithographer at 19. By 1857 his freelance illustration career was underway and he contributed to magazines such as Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly. His early works, mostly commercial engravings, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings — qualities that remained important throughout his career.
In 1859 he opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, and began his painting career. Until 1861 he attended classes at National Academy of Design, and studied briefly with Frédéric Rondel. Harper's sent Homer to the front lines of the Civil War (1861-1865), where he sketched battle scenes and mundane camp life. His initial sketches were of the camp, commanders, and army of the famous Union officer, Major General George B. McClellan at the banks of the Potomac River in October 1861. Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer's transition from illustrator to painter. At his studio after the war, Homer set to work on a series of war-related paintings, among them Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, and Prisoners from the Front, noted for its objectivity and realism. Its favorable critical reception resulted in the artists being elected an academician.
After exhibiting at the National Academy of Design, Homer traveled to Paris in 1867 where he remained for a year. He practiced landscape painting while working for Harper's. Though his interest in depicting natural light parallels that of the impressionists, there is no evidence of direct influence.
Throughout the 1870s he painted rural or idyllic scenes of farm life, children playing, and young adults courting. Homer gained acclaim as a painter in the late 1870s and early 1880s. His 1872 composition, Snap-the-Whip, was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Of his work at this time, Henry James wrote: "We frankly confess that we detest his subjects … he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial … and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded".
The same sensibility that allowed Homer to distill art from potentially sentimental subjects also yielded unaffected views of African American life at the time.
Homer was a member of the The Tile Club, a group of artists and writers who met frequently to exchange ideas and organize outings for painting. Homer's nickname in The Tile Club was The Obtuse Bard. Other well-known Tilers were painters William Merritt Chase, Arthur Quartley, and the sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens.
In 1873 Homer started painting with watercolors. His impact on the medium would be revolutionary. Homer's watercolor paintings exhibit a fresh, spontaneous, loose, yet natural style. Thereafter, he seldom traveled without paper, brushes and water based paints. Homer once remarked, "You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors".
In 1875 Homer quit working as a commercial illustrator. He traveled widely, spending two years (1881-1882) in the English coastal village of Cullercoats, Northumberland, where he rekindled his boyhood interest in the sea, and painted the local fisherfolk. Many of the paintings at Cullercoats took as their subjects young women mending nets or looking out to sea; they are imbued with a solidity, sobriety, and earthy heroism that was new to Homer's art, and they presage the direction of his future work.
Back in the U.S., he moved to Prout's Neck, Maine (in Scarborough) and painted the seascapes for which he is best known. Notable among these dramatic struggle-with-nature images are Banks Fisherman, Eight Bells, The Gulf Stream, Rum Cay, Mending the Nets, and Searchlight, Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba. Although Homer never taught, these works strongly influenced succeeding generations of American painters for their direct and energetic interpretation of man's stoic relationship to an often neutral and sometimes harsh wildernessj. Robert Henri called Homer's work an "integrity of nature". (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, HarperCollins, 1984).
In the winter Homer ventured to warmer locations in Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. He also found inspiration in summer trips to the North Woods Club, near Minerva, New York in the Adirondacks. On these fishing vacations he experimented freely with the watercolor medium, producing works of the utmost vigor and subtlety, hymns to solitude. In terms of quality and invention, Homer's achievements as a watercolorist are unparalleled: "Homer had used his singular vision and manner of painting to create a body of work that has not been matched."
Homer died at the age of 74 in his Prout's Neck studio and was interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His painting, Shoot the Rapids, remained unfinished.