February 24, 1836– Winslow Homer is one of the most prolific and important American artists of the 19th century. If you read #BornThisDay often, you know that I have a passion for American painting; recent columns have celebrated John Singer Sargent and Grant Wood. Homer is certainly a favorite of The Husband and mine. Homer created a modern American classical style, the visual equivalent of Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville or Walt Whitman.
Born in Boston, Homer started his career as a commercial printmaker there and then in NYC, where he made his home in 1859. In October, 1861, he received an assignment on the frontlines in Virginia as an artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. Homer’s Civil War paintings were more a matter of reporting than framed art work, more in the manner of his advertising prints. When the War Between The States ended, his paintings brought a more profound understanding of the war’s impact and meaning on the country’s citizens.
Back in NYC, Homer made his living drawing magazine illustrations and building his reputation as a painter, but he found most of his subjects in the popular seaside resorts of Massachusetts and New Jersey, and in the Adirondacks of New York State, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Late in 1866, two of his Civil War paintings were shown in Paris at the Exposition Universelle. For the next year he explored Paris and the French countryside. Homer shared an interest in the same subjects and styles as the French painters of the era: their fascination with serial imagery, and the desire to use outdoor light, simple forms and expressive brushwork.
In 1875, Homer began to paint using watercolors instead of oils, with solid success. The sales of his work enabled him to give up his job as an illustrator. He returned to Virginia to observe and portray what had happened to the lives of former slaves during the first decade of Emancipation.
In the early 1880s, Homer began to desire solitude, and his paintings took on a startling intensity. In 1881, he traveled to England. After visiting London, he settled in Cullercoats, a village on the North Sea, staying for 18 months. He observed the tough, courageous lives of the locals, whom he depicted in their boats, hauling and cleaning fish, and mending their nets. When Homer returned to the USA, he was a changed man and a changed artist.
In the summer of 1883, 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 the privacy and silence. This is where Homer painted the great themes of his career: the struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile human life against the brute force of nature. His famous paintings of men challenging the power of the ocean with their own strength and cunning, responding to the water’s overwhelming force in scenes of dramatic rescue, are from this period.
But 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 sounds of 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 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 was close with Albert Kelsey, another New England artist whom he met in 1858. They lived and traveled together for a decade.
The closest companion of his life was an African-American gentleman, Lewis Wright, who lived at Homer’s Maine estate for 25 years. It is known that Homer’s neighbors were made uncomfortable by the closeness of his relationship with Wright, especially when leaving the gym together after core class and sharing an IPod, sweetly, each taking a single earbud. They both were in to early R&B, and soaking in natural hot springs.
A photograph, made while they lived in Paris, apes the conventions of period marriage portraits, as do so many photographic portraits of male friends of this period. I am smart enough to know that many of the vintage photographs in my own collection represent male romantic comradeship and not necessarily sex partners, but we can never be really sure. As old as I am, I missed this epoch. But the title of the photograph of Homer and Wright is Damon And Pythias, the famous ancient Greek heroes and lovers.
Homer put down his brushes for good in 1910, gone at 74 years old, at his studio in Prouts Neck.