Winslow Homer 1836-1910
- Winslow Homer
- Fishergirls Coiling Tackle
- signed Winslow Homer and dated 1881, l.r.
- watercolor on paper
- 14 by 19 3/4 in.
- (35.6 by 50.2 cm)
Grace Barrett Valentine (his wife), Darien, Connecticut
Tom Donlon, 1943
Private Collection, New York, 1946 (acquired from the above)
By descent to the present owner (their son)
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum, Oils and Watercolors by Winslow Homer, October-December 1944, no. 35
New York, Wildenstein & Co., A Loan Exhibition of Winslow Homer for the Benefit of the New York Botanical Garden, February-March 1947, no. 54
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Winslow Homer Watercolors, March-May 1986, no. 77, pp. 95, 248, illustrated in color p. 97 (as Fishergirls)
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In March of 1881, Winslow Homer left New York for England on a trip that was supposed to last several months. He stayed nearly two years. After a short stop in London, Homer settled in the small fishing village of Cullercoats on the northeastern coast of England. Widely recognized as a pivotal moment in Homer's career, it marked a change in both technique and subject matter. Lloyd Goodrich saw this period as a "turning point ... in every way. It brought him 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." (Lloyd Goodrich, Winslow Homer, New York, 1944, p. 82). His style and subject changed dramatically. Nicolai Cikovsky observes that "his colors became immediately more restrained, his forms larger, weightier, and more ample; the person he depicted more mature and their enterprise more serious" (Winslow Homer, p. 75).
Homer may have initially heard about Cullercoats through a village fisherman on his ship as he traveled across the Atlantic. It is also possible he read about Cullercoats in one of the English magazines popular in America. One such magazine, Graphic, included the following description in 1879: "In a secluded sea village there are conserved the old methods and even the modes of speech; and to the visitor fresh from town the habits the language even of the fisher-folk is as markedly fresh as is the bracing air that blows across leagues of sea waves and foam. The great fishing waters of England are on the east coast from Yarmouth to Berwick, and probably the north-eastern portion preserves most fully the peculiarities of life and labour that have long marked the industry... At Cullercoats... fishermen still form a distinct class of the population, with modes of thought and of action of their own."
Homer is reported to have said that he came to the fishing village looking for "atmosphere and color," according to recollections by A. B. Adamson, a fellow artist in Cullercoats. Finding more than atmosphere and color, he found a subject he would paint in nearly one hundred fifty works. "Look at the fishergirls," he exclaimed, "there are none like them in my country in dress, feature, or form" ("The Homer that I Knew," Winslow Homer: All the Cullercoats Pictures, Sunderland, England, 1988, p. 17). Helen Cooper observes that "Like almost everyone else who visited Cullercoats, Homer was drawn to the fisherwomen. 'Fair complexioned, sun-tanned, ruddy cheeks, with strong-built but supple forms,' they were famous for their beauty. They were, as one writer put it, 'the great feature of the place'" (Winslow Homer Watercolors, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 116). Though delicate contemplative women had been a common theme of Homer's work in America, in Cullercoats, Homer's attention turned to expressing his admiration for these formidable working women and their vital role in village life.
The daily launch of fishing boats at dusk marked the pattern of life in Cullercoats. When the fishermen returned at dawn, they passed off their catch to the village women waiting onshore. After the women loaded their fishing creels, with sometimes as much as fifty pounds of fish, they took the catch directly to market. During the remaining daylight hours, the men slept, while the fisherwomen worked in anticipation of the outgoing cobles (fishing boats) again at dusk. "They searched for bait, dug for sand worms, or gathered mussels, limpets, and dogcrabs from the rocks. They assisted in the baiting of hooks" - the task Homer depicts in Fishergirls Coiling Tackle - "helped to push the boats into the often icy waters at sunset, and pulled them in again at five or six in the morning when they returned laden with fish. The fisherwoman was described as healthy and powerful; her ways, modest and restrained" (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 117).
In Fishergirls Coiling Tackle Homer painted two young women in a sunlit courtyard believed to be located outside of the artist's studio, where village women would regularly work. Wearing pleated blue skirts, white blouses and red kerchiefs at their necks, their wide-brimmed hats shade their faces from the sun. A younger girl holding a doll peers from around the bottom of a staircase draped with drying fishing nets. The vertical composition of the dark fisherman's boots hanging in shadow is juxtaposed against the horizontal and sunlit scene of two chickens pecking in the dirt. Vibrant reds highlight the details and play against the composition's neutral background.
In the Cullercoats watercolors Homer's technique changed - he began building up washes of color, and scraping away paint from the page. Most importantly, he now approached the medium in a way previously reserved for oil painting. Rather than create watercolors on site, he prepared preliminary sketches, executing the finished work in his studio which allowed time for the works to be completed on a grander scale. These significant changes ultimately lend the Cullercoats watercolors a monumentality previously unseen.