Winslow Homer is one of the most prolific and important American artists of the 19th century. I have a passion for American painting. My Born This Day column on the Wow Report has celebrated Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent and Grant Wood. Homer is certainly a favorite also. He created a modern American Classical style of painting, a sort of visual equivalent to the very American writings of Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville or Walt Whitman.
In 1863, Homer moved to Prout’s Neck, a village in Maine, where he produced dazzling paintings, and where he lived for the rest of his life. He enjoyed the isolation and he was inspired by his privacy and the sound of the sea. This is where Homer painted the great theme of his career: The struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile human life against the brute force of nature. His most famous paintings, the ones you think of when you hear his name, are pictures of men challenging the power of the ocean with their own strength and cunning and responding to the water’s overwhelming force in scenes of dramatic rescues are from this period.
By 1890, Homer gave up narrative depictions of humans and concentrated on the dynamic drama of the sea itself. His richly textured and composed seascapes capture the look and feel of rushing and receding waves. You can almost hear the crash of water. In his own lifetime, these paintings were his most admired works, noted for Homer’s first exciting hints of modernist abstraction.
Homer’s masterpiece The Life Line (1884) is one of the great popular and critical successes of the artist’s career, the painting engages his themes of peril at sea and the power of nature, while celebrating modern heroism and the thrill of unexpected intimacy between strangers thrown together by disaster.
The Life Line draws on the traditional shipwreck scenario: mountainous waves, wind and spray, a helpless vessel, and a desperate human struggle, but shown with an original, modern perspective. It lives at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art. You can see it in person.
Homer refused to answer questions about his personal life from critics and biographers. He left no revealing diaries or papers, and he produced no self-portraits. He was a lifelong bachelor and extraordinarily shy. Homer himself hinted at this sentiment in a 1908 note to a reporter:
“I think that it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear–and as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it.”
He had a very close relationship with Albert Kelsey, another New England artist whom he met in 1858. They lived and traveled together for a decade. But, the closest companion in his life was an African-American gentleman, Lewis Wright, who lived at Homer’s Maine estate for 25 years.