Winslow Homer 1836 - 1910
- Winslow Homer
- The "Summer Cloud"
- Signed Winslow Homer and dated 1881 (lower left)
- Watercolor on paper
- 13 1/2 by 19 3/4 inches
- (34.3 by 50.2 cm)
Edward Kunehart Warren, New York, by 1938 (her son)
Mrs. Edward Kunehart Warren, New York, 1966 (his wife)
Private Collection, by 1988 (their daughter and sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 25, 1988, lot 74, illustrated)
Acquired at the above sale by A. Alfred Taubman
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Winslow Homer, October 1995-September 1996, no. 108, p. 201, illustrated
Lloyd Goodrich and Abigail Booth Gerdts, Record of Works by Winslow Homer: 1881 through 1882, New York, 2012, vol. IV.1, no. 1032, pp. 40-41, illustrated p. 41
By Katherine E. Manthorne
On March 15, 1881 Homer set sail on the Cunard liner S.S. Parthia bound for Britain. Disembarking at Liverpool, he spent some time in London before settling in the modest fishing village and artist’s colony of Cullercoats near Tynemouth. There he spent the next twenty-one months in his rented cottage and a studio on the northeast coast of England overlooking the North Sea. He found his models mainly among local fisherwomen, for it was they who labored on land while the men went off to sea. Watercolor became his primary medium, in which he created an impressive sequence of pictures. After some months he felt ready to send a group of thirty works home to his New York dealer J. Eastman Chase with instructions to “keep them in a portfolio or have an exhibition as you think best.”[i] Chase opted to exhibit Homer’s initial English watercolors, which immediately received a positive reception. Among them was The ‘Summer Cloud,’ which one journalist praised: “The feeling of a windy day is admirably described… The sky is dark with heavy clouds, but under the lee of a large boat on the sand two girls have found a safe retreat, where they are impervious to ordinary weather severity.”[ii] Others found their immediacy engaging: “We do not believe he has ever shown us any works so spontaneous in appearance and delightful in effect as these.”[iii] For the increasingly influential critic Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer they signaled a new phase of creativity:
Mr. Homer again surprised us with drawings of a new kind and possessing novel claims to praise. They were pictures of English fisherwomen, set, as usual with him, in landscape surroundings of much importance, and were, I think, by far the finest works he has yet shown in any medium.[iv]
Transported from the bustle of New York City, Homer was able to observe the life of the village. This picture takes its title from the name of the boat, lettered on its stern. Homer took care to depict the distinctive form of a coble, the traditional fishing boat with flat bottom and high bow developed in the region to allow fishermen to launch into the surf and land on sandy beaches. He was equally attentive to the prevailing social order, where “women are the working bees.” Over the course of his stay he depicted them at most of their duties: gathering bait, repairing nets, hauling and cleaning fish, maintaining the fishing boats, and selling the catch, all the while tending to their domestic chores. The artist saw beyond the drudgery to discover a dignity and sculptural grace as they went about their quotidian routines against the North Sea’s gray skies and stormy waters. His time in London, scholars have suggested, likely provided the opportunity to see the work of Jules Breton, Frank Holl, George du Maurier or the Elgin marbles, which could have inspired his treatment of these hardy women.[v] Writing with hindsight in 1914, artist and writer Kenyon Cox recognized a transformation these experiences precipitated in Homer’s art:
The first and most important of these effects of the Tynemouth visit upon Homer’s style is the awakening in him of a sense of human beauty and, particularly, of the beauty of womanhood. Now he saw for the first time, in these robust English fishwives, a type of figure matching in its nobility and simplicity the element forces of nature: a type which lent itself admirably to his love of weight and solidity.[vi]
Homer’s absorption with formal problems, however, did allow him to ignore human nature. The two young women seeking protection from a coming storm by the hull of the Summer Cloud display a certain anxiety: the one rests her chin pensively in one hand while she grasps the chain anchoring the boat with the other; her companion sits hunched over lost in thought as stares off in the distance. Dwarfed by the grounded coble, they seem momentarily discouraged in their battle against the sea. For all the critical rhetoric about the robustness and heroism of Homer’s fisherwomen, close inspection reveals his more nuanced portrayal of the struggle between man (or woman) and nature.
Sotheby’s would like to thank Katherine Manthorne for writing the catalogue essay for the present lot.
Katherine Manthorne is a Professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
[i] J. Eastman Chase Papers, Archives of American Art.
[ii] “The Fine Arts,” Boston Herald, February 5, 1882; quoted in Cikovsky and Kelly, Winslow Homer, p. 201.
[iii]Boston Advertiser February 4, 1882.
[iv] M.G. Van Rensselaer, “An American Artist in England,” The Century Magazine 27 (Nov. 1883): 17.
[v] John Wilmerding, “Winslow Homer’s English Period,” The American Art Journal 7 (Nov. 1975): 60-69.
[vi] Kenyon Cox, Winslow Homer (New York, 1914): 26-27.