Landscape painter Winslow Homer’s evocative depictions of rural and coastal life made him among the most preeminent American artists of the 19th century. A largely self-taught artist Homer rose to prominence for his densely impastoed oil paintings and watercolors, which captured the artist’s personal and spiritual connection to nature. Three works on paper by the esteemed artist — Yacht In A Cove, Gloucester (1880), Gathering Wild Blackberries (1880) and The Life Brigade (1883) – will be offered in Sotheby’s upcoming American Art Auction (16 November, New York). Ahead, learn more about the artist, his practice and his singular vision of the natural world.
Though Homer is perhaps best-known for his oil paintings, it was his watercolors that brought him his first financial success. The medium granted the artist an immediacy in capturing the shifting conditions of the natural environment that so captivated him throughout his career. Completed during the artistically pivotal years from 1880 to 1883, Yacht In A Cove, Gloucester (1880), Gathering Wild Blackberries (1880) and The Life Brigade (1883) illustrate both the varied approaches he utilized in his works on paper and important developments in his techniques.
Although Winslow Homer rarely commented on his own art, he insisted that an artist should strive for “the truth of that which he wishes to represent,” which could be attained only by observing in “out-door light.” 1 “Out-doors you have the sky overhead giving one light; then the reflected light from whatever reflects; then the direct light of the sun: so that, in the blending and suffusing of these several illuminations, there is no such thing as a line to be seen anywhere," he said. 2
Yacht in a Cove, Gloucester (1880) bears out these remarks; the haze of the sky and the broken reflections on the water make even the horizon line difficult to discern. An increasing subtlety is apparent in his handling of the watercolor, which he allowed to puddle and soak the page, leaving behind clouds and the slight movement of the surface of the water. These subjects appear more as aqueous traces and stains rather than as deliberately painted forms. The boats and island receding toward the horizon along with the grassy sliver of land in the left foreground function as accents in a design rather than participating in a human narrative. In his later years, after he settled in Prout’s Neck, Maine, Homer would distill his art down to the essence of land, sea and sky, devoid of human figures. Here we have a foreshadowing of that later development: a picture that encourages the viewer to contemplate the seacoast in this protected cove, with the yacht sailing close to shore, in a moment of tranquil beauty.
"It brought Homer into close contact with the sea, henceforth his dominant theme. It witnessed a phenomenal maturing in mind and vision. It resulted in a long step forward in technical mastery.
Created circa 1880, around the same time as Yacht in a Cove, Gloucester, Gathering Wild Blackberries captures Homer's decidedly distinct approach to depicting nature in his illustrations. Homer, who had apprenticed to a commercial lithographer as a young man, worked as an illustrator for decades, and was employed by Harper’s Weekly from 1859 to 1883. This illustration appeared alongside an article entitled "Success with Small Fruits," in an 1880 issue of the periodical Scribner's Monthly. The ink-and-gouache work presents three serene young girls in bonnets filling their baskets amid a riot of blackberry bushes. Homer frequently depicted women and children playing or lost in their own thoughts. In this work, he shows a harmonious union between humanity and nature – a theme he often explored in his commercial illustrations.
In 1881, the year following the creation of Yacht In A Cove, Gloucester and Gathering Wild Blackberries, Homer departed on a journey to England that would last two years and would prove deeply formative to his changing aesthetic. After a short stop in London, Homer settled in the small fishing village of Cullercoats on the northeastern coast of England. Though Homer began to work in watercolor a decade before, his sojourn in England instigated a pivotal change in his technique and subject matter. The time the artist spent in Cullercoats was particularly transformative. As Lloyd Goodrich explains, “In every way the Tynemouth experience marked a turning point in Homer’s career. It brought [Homer] into close contact with the sea, henceforth his dominant theme. It witnessed a phenomenal maturing in mind and vision. It resulted in a long step forward in technical mastery. It brought him his greatest acclaim and his most solid financial rewards up to that time. And it settled in his mind the kind of life he wanted to lead and the kind of art he wanted to produce.”3
The Life Brigade displays the new handling and consideration of the watercolor medium that Homer adopted while living abroad. Looking out to sea on the cliffs at Tynemouth, the motley crew of fishermen dressed in mismatched oilskins brace against the ferocious wind, waves and salty spray crashing at the breakers before them. The men appear almost helpless against the elements and the watercolor captures the rugged beauty of the remote environment, where essentially every aspect of life was governed by the weather and the sea. As such, Homer often portrayed figures reckoning with the powerful, active forces of nature in this period and strove to emphasize the tempestuous atmospheric effects he likely experienced as he lived and worked in Cullercoats.
Homer’s mastery of watercolor is evident as he varies the application and intensity of the wash to illustrate the various textures of the ocean, the stalwart building and the protagonists of the scene, the fishermen. The figures are accentuated by a heavier application of the medium, providing weight and depth to the composition. As Lloyd Goodrich further explained, “[Homer's] swift, skillful draftsmanship, learned in years of illustrating, had full scope in watercolor. The combined freshness and sureness of his watercolor handling anticipated the later development of his painting style.” 4
After leaving England, Homer continued to depict the perils of sea throughout the remainder of his career. The timeless struggle between man and nature proved to be a constant source of inspiration for the artist during his late years spent at Prouts Neck, Maine.
1. George Sheldon, “Sketches and Studies II,” Art Journal, April 1880, n.p..
2. As quoted in Nicolai Cikovsky and Franklin Kelly, Winslow Homer, New Haven, Connecticut, 1995, p. 395.
3. Winslow Homer, New York, 1944, p. 82.
4. Winslow Homer, New York, 1959, p. 20.