Naturalist painter Winslow Homer was a dominant influence on the American realist style of painting. Best known for his seascapes, he is considered one of the greatest American 19th-century watercolorists.
Born February 24, 1836 in Boston, Winslow Homer was believed to be self-taught. The young artist spent his early years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was apprenticed in his teens to J.H. Bufford's lithographic firm in Boston. Feeling that his creativity was limited, he soon left the shop and aimed at becoming a freelance illustrator. In 1855, he moved to New York City and attended the National Academy of Design.
In 1859, Homer set up a studio at the 10th Street Studio Building in New York City and found success in contributing to the popular Harper's Weekly, as well as other magazines. His illustrations, primarily engravings, were characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and lively groupings of figures. In 1866, his “Prisoners from the Front’, inspired by his time spent in the American Civil War battlefront, won him international acclaim and was showcased at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. During this time, he earned a reputation for realism, a style he exercised in paintings such as, ‘In Front of Yorktown’, ‘Playing Old Soldier’, ‘A Rainy Day in Camp’ and ‘A Skirmish in the Wilderness’.
Homer began working with watercolor in 1873 and brought rural life to the forefront with paintings of farm settings and children at play. ‘Long Branch, New Jersey’ (1869) is an example of the type of resort scenes he was also producing during this time. Then, in 1876, Homer decided to devote himself entirely to painting and let go of his career in illustration.
Winslow Homer traveled to England in 1881 and stayed there for a year taking residence in a fishing village in Tynemouth. Marine life sparked the creation of some large-scale images of nature, scenes of the sea, the local fishermen and their families. His passion for more natural settings inspired him to move from New York in 1882 to the rugged coast of Prout's Neck in Maine. Eventually, seascapes would become his trademark.
In 1886, Homer created ‘Eight Bells’, which showcased human struggle with the forces of nature, an achievement that demonstrated maturity in his art. The artist opted for warmer temperatures during the winter months, often traveling to Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba. His tropical scenes were painted mostly in watercolor, and his technique was fresh, spontaneous and loose, with a slight impressionistic influence that never lost its naturalistic roots. One of his most popular works, ‘The Frightening Gulf Stream’ (1899), depicts a sailor alone at sea, rocked by the waves of the billowing waters.
Winslow Homer’s significant influence on American realism was mainly due to his grand themes and powerful designs. He often exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association and the NAD, where he was elected an academician in 1865. He was a member of the Century Association from 1865 until his death. The artist died in Prout’s Neck on September 29, 1910, somewhat of a recluse, and never married. His dramatic and intense interpretations of the sea will forever hold a unique place in American art.