Artist Stories

Winslow Homer – Painter of America

Alexandra Kiely 6 October 2020 min Read

From soldiers to frolicking schoolchildren and New England fishing communities, Winslow Homer depicted American life. His works present un-idealized, yet visually-stunning views of the nation after its brutal Civil War. Our October partner, The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, owns a great assortment of Homer’s paintings, as well as many prints based on his works. We can use The Clark’s collection to explore how Winslow Homer painted America.

Homer the Illustrator

After Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty
Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, November 15, 1862. Wood engraving on newsprint. Harper’s Weekly, vol. 6. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. Image courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

The Boston-born Homer (1836-1910) originally worked as an illustrator for periodicals like Harper’s Weekly. During his illustration career, he recorded the soldiers and events of the American Civil War in a series of paintings, many of which became prints for Harper’s. Living in New York after the war, he slowly abandoned illustration in favor of painting, despite his scant formal training. However, his illustration background remains apparent in his painting style through graphic, easy-to-read compositions.

Homer the Painter

Winslow Homer, Two Guides
Winslow Homer, Two Guides, 1877. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. Image courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

Homer’s paintings engagingly represent Americans at work and play. He often portrayed rural folk, such as farmers and fishermen. Homer respected these hardworking men and women, so he made efforts to convey their difficult lives. His paintings are never sentimental or idealized, but they are still quite pleasant to look at. Some have idyllic qualities, while others can be quite dramatic.

Winslow Homer, The Bridle Path, White Mountains
Winslow Homer, The Bridle Path, White Mountains, 1868. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. Image courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

Homer also painted scenes of the upper classes engaged in leisure activities such as swimming and riding. He worked primarily in the American northeast, specifically New England and the mountains of upstate New York. However, he traveled to Florida, Canada, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. Additionally, he also spent time in both England and France.

Homer and Prout’s Neck

Winslow Homer, Saco Bay
Winslow Homer, Saco Bay, 1896. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. Image courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

Inspired by his time in Tynemouth on the English coast, Winslow Homer moved to Prout’s Neck, Maine in 1883. He lived and worked there until his death in 1910. Homer clearly had an affinity for the ocean and as a result, many of his most beautiful paintings depict the sea and coast at Prout’s Neck. His countless images of sailors and fishers include quiet moments, as well as dramatic storms and daring rescue missions.

Winslow Homer, Summer Squall
Winslow Homer, Summer Squall, 1904. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. Image courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

Homer also painted numerous seascapes. His late paintings focus on the drama of the water itself, while minimizing or entirely eliminating human elements. He represented clouds, waves, and the spray of seawater with thick, painterly brushstrokes that can feel almost violent in their intensity. Perhaps because of this, some people find Homer’s late paintings of Prout’s Neck, like Summer Squall, to be harsh and unfriendly.

Winslow Homer at the Clark

Winslow Homer, Playing a Fish
Winslow Homer, Playing a Fish, 1875/1890s. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. Image courtesy of the Clark Art Institute.

If you want to learn more about the Winslow Homer paintings and prints at the Clark Art Institute, the good news is that the museum is open again! You can also watch this series of short videos about sixteen key Homer artworks in the museum’s collection.


Sources referenced:

  • Winslow Homer“. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA.
  • Bermingham, Peter. American Art in the Barbizon Mood. Washington, D.C., USA: National Collection of Fine Arts and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975. Quoted on the Smithsonian American Art Museum website.
  • Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing, 2003, p. 334-338.
  • Lewis, Michael. J. American Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2006, p. 130-133, 173.
  • Weinberg, H. Barbara. “Winslow Homer (1836–1910)” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000– (October 2004).

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