Winslow Homer was an American landscape painter and printmaker, best known for his marine subjects. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 24, 1836 to Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer. Homer’s mother was a gifted amateur watercolorist, from whom he inherited many traits, including her artistic talent. His father was a relentless businessman who left his family in search of making money; however his projects never materialized. Homer spent most of his childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and from a young age his artistic talent was evident.
At the age of 19, Winslow Homer became an apprentice in the Boston lithographic firm of J.H. Bufford. After three years at his apprenticeship, Homer became a freelance illustrator. He contributed to Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, and Harper’s Weekly, where he later became a leading illustrator. Winslow Homer’s early works consisted of mostly commercial engravings of urban and country social scenes. Clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark and lively figure groups were qualities that remained important throughout his career. Homer had a strong understanding of graphic design, and his work was adaptable to wood engraving.
In 1859, Winslow Homer opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City. He went on to study at the National Academy of Design in 1863, and studied briefly with Frédéric Rondel, who taught him the basics of painting. Harper’s sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War, where he sketched battle scenes, camp life, commanders, and the army of Major General George B. McClellan at the banks of the Potomac River. He also illustrated women, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. During this time, Winslow Homer’s skills expanded from illustrator to painter.
When Homer returned to his studio, he set out to create a series of war-related paintings that were based on his sketches. Among the set were Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), Home, Sweet Home (1863), and Prisoners from the Front (1866). Winslow Homer was elected as an Associate Academician after the exhibition of Home Sweet Home at the National Academy. He was then elected as a full Academician in 1865. After the war, his attention was primarily focused on the scenes of childhood and young women. Crossing the Pasture (1871-1872) depicts idealize brotherhood with the hope of a united future after the war that pitted brother against brother.
Winslow Homer traveled to Paris, France in 1867. His most praised early painting, Prisoners from the Front, exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. While he continued to work for Harper’s, Homer practiced landscape painting, depicting scenes of peasant Parisian life. Homer exhibited his watercolor paintings at the American Society of Painters in Watercolors in 1874, and three years later became a member of the organization. In addition to adopting watercolor as his primary form of expression, he also found inspiration in Japanese art. Homer incorporated asymmetrical pictorial arrangement and flat areas of color into his work, and embraced the Aesthetic Movement’s emphasis on beauty. He portrayed fashionably dressed women rather than genteel. This shift in style was accompanied by a new interest in decoration and tiling. Paintings of rural African American life resulted from visits to Petersburg, Virginia around 1876. Paintings included Dressing for the Carnival (1877) and A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876). In 1877, Homer’s oil painting, An Afternoon Sun, exhibited at the Boston Art Club, where he continued to exhibit often until 1909.
In 1881, Homer traveled to England, where he lived in Cullercoats for almost two years. He undertook the subject of the human struggle with nature; the focus that occupied him for the rest of his career. During this time he painted mostly in watercolor, producing works of local inhabitants, particularly the fisherwomen. He displayed these women in a heroic manner that conveyed a sense of courage and strength. The size of his compositions during this period enlarged.
After his time in England, Winslow Homer retreated to Prout’s Neck, Maine, where he built a studio overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Homer’s subject matter shifted to references of the physical and spiritual power of nature. In the mid-1880s, Homer made his first etchings, seven of the eight that were created from 1884 to 1889 were based on his sea paintings and his English watercolors. In 1890, Homer created the first painting in a series of the seascapes at Prout’s Neck. These works became the most admired of his late oil paintings.
Homer died in 1910 at the age of 74 in his Prout’s Neck studio. His painting Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River, remains unfinished. Winslow Homer is widely regarded as one of the most important painters in the United States. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honors during his lifetime, and his work continues to be admired.