For the first time, the National Gallery in London displays a selection of works by American artist Winslow Homer. Known in the United States for his depiction of leading issues of the 19th century, such as the Civil War and racism, Homer remained popular in America for many years after his death. Although he briefly stayed in England, Homer did not attain the same popularity in the United Kingdom. The exhibition, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, provides the opportunity for people to discover the paintings that Americans have loved for over a century.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24th February 1836, Winslow Homer grew up in a middle-class family consisting of two parents and two brothers. His father, Charles Savage Homer, was a businessman, constantly seeking out “get-rich-quick” schemes that never came to fruition. Charles eventually left his family to seek his nonexistent fortune in Europe. Homer’s mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, taught her son to paint with watercolour and encouraged his interest in art. Despite his father’s selfish money-making endeavours, Charles found an apprenticeship for his son with the lithographer J. H. Bufford, who introduced Homer to the world of engraving and illustration.
Homer found work with Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular middle-class magazines in New York City. Whilst Homer turned down a permanent position on the magazine’s staff, he worked as a freelancer from his studio in Boston, producing drawings to illustrate articles on various subjects. Homer also attended classes at the National Academy of Design in New York to expand his artistic horizons. By the time the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Homer was an established illustrator and an up-and-coming oil and watercolour painter.
The Civil War became the focus of most American magazines, so Harper’s Weekly sent Homer to the Union Army Front in Virginia to draw illustrations. The artists covering the war were the 19th-century equivalent of sending photographers and news reporters. The work was dangerous and exhausting for Homer, but he produced some of the most powerful images of the Civil War. Several of these he reproduced as oil paintings, such as Sharpshooter (1863), which depicts a Union rifleman sitting in a tree, aiming at an unseen target in the distance. Homer said the scene was as close to murder as anything he had ever seen, and he frequently questioned the morals and human stakes of the war.
Homer believed the most powerful images derived from focusing on specific details. He said, “When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway.” Homer did not draw what he wanted people to see but instead painted what he could see, whether boredom and hunger or terror and violence. Although he did not physically fight during the Civil War, Homer likely suffered emotionally and psychologically after witnessing the horrors of battle. When he returned home, his mother noted he had changed so much that not even his best friends recognised him.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the country entered a period of reconstruction. With the abolishment of slavery, African Americans became free citizens and received, to some extent, the same civil rights as their former masters. Homer spent some time in the southern states, where slavery was once prevalent, and soon realised that the Civil War had not solved America’s problems. He noted that reconstruction was not working and began depicting post-war African American life in his paintings.
In A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876), Homer demonstrated the new social relationships between former slave and mistress. The African American women in the painting were once the property of the stern white woman, but now they are her employees. Rather than working for nothing, they are paid for their work, which means they must pay for their board and lodgings. Former slaves received very little money for their work, which meant they remained in slave-like conditions because they could not afford to move away.
The silent, sad girls in The Cotton Pickers (1876) are no longer slaves, but their workload has not changed. They picked cotton before the war and are still picking cotton afterwards. Whilst Homer’s beautiful depiction of the cotton fields makes the painting pleasant to look at, it is full of deeper meaning. Homer never explained his artwork, but the lack of joy on the figures’ faces suggests their lives have not changed since the abolition of slavery. Former slaves still lived in a deeply racist world where the rise of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, found alternative ways of policing African Americans. Shortly after the completion of this painting, Jim Crow laws were implemented, which enforced racial segregation in society.
In 1881, Homer moved to England for a couple of years. Initially, he travelled to London, but after a week, he moved to Cullercoats, a fishing village in what was once Northumberland (now Tyne and Wear). Homer became a part of the Cullercoats Artist Colony, who frequently painted the “Cullercoats Fish Lasses” going about their work. These women, some as young as 14, worked in all weathers, cleaning fish and mending nets. Many of these workers carried their babies and children on their backs while they worked despite the bracing strong and bitter winds. When they were not working, the women frequently stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their husbands, fathers and brothers.
During the 19th century, the life of a fisherman was dangerous. There was no guarantee that the men would return safely to shore. Drownings and shipwrecks were a daily occurrence, and Homer spent much of his time in Cullercoats recording and observing the perils at sea.
During Homer’s time in Cullercoats, a large ship called the Iron Crown foundered at the mouth of the River Tyne on 20th October 1881. The villagers raised the alarm and everyone, including Homer, rushed to the shore to begin rescue operations. While the more skilled men sailed out in lifeboats, Homer documented the event on paper with quick sketches, which he later developed into dramatic oil paintings.
Homer returned to the United States in 1882 and began demonstrating his skills in watercolours as well as oils. After spending a few months in New York, Homer settled in Prouts Neck, Maine, a small coastal town that reminded him of Cullercoats. Whilst the elemental, austere location gave Homer lots of inspiration for his paintings, he began to travel south during the winter because the warmer climate was better for his health. He visited places such as Florida, the Bahamas, Barbados and Bermuda and observed the various ways of life. Many of these works featured bright colours, reflecting the sundrenched scenes and different cultures.
Although Homer produced more watercolour paintings in his later years, he continued to work in oils for larger, dramatic scenes. His trips to Florida and the Caribbean involved crossing the Gulf Stream, a warm, swift current in the Atlantic Ocean. He chose to paint an imagined scene depicting a lone black sailor in a state of peril. Before producing The Gulf Stream (1899), Homer created several watercolours representing the different parts of the sailor’s journey. For his oil painting, Homer chose to surround the boat with sharks while the sailor lies defeated on the deck with only several stalks of sugar cane to sustain him.
Many people have tried to interpret what Homer was trying to say in his painting of The Gulf Stream. Although people frequently asked Homer to elaborate, he always refused. Some suggest the sugar cane is an allegory for the fate of African Americans because it was once a predominant product of enslaved labour in the Americas and West Indies. Others are more concerned about the man’s fate, noting both the presence of the frenzy of sharks in the foreground and the silhouette of a ship in the background. Contemporary critics comment on its relevance to today’s society, particularly in relation to migrants crossing the Mediterranean and the migration of Cubans to America, many of whom lost their lives in the attempt.
By the end of Homer’s life, he was one of the most famous living American artists, but he did not reach financial stability until 1900 at the age of 64. The money he received from museums for his paintings was relatively good, and his father’s death two years before meant Homer no longer needed to pay for his father’s care.
For the final decade of his life, Homer continued producing watercolours and oils, but he turned his attention to nature, from which no hidden messages can be subtracted. Homer once told an art student, “Leave rocks for your old age – they’re easy.” Following his own advice, Homer focused on rocks upon the shore, rarely including signs of human life.
Homer’s final oil painting, Driftwood (1909), included a lone figure in the bottom right corner, once again prompting people to question the meaning of his work. The rest of the painting is similar to Homer’s other scenes from this era, which focus on the violent sea crashing over rocks. The man is attempting to move a large piece of driftwood, a task that seems futile as the crashing waves approach. Some have interpreted the figure as Homer facing his impending death. Whether or not Homer knew he was dying, he passed away the following year at the age of 74.
Most artists experience a decline in popularity after their death, but Homer has remained popular in the United States. Homer never taught in schools, but many students chose to study his work, both before and after his death. Homer did not offer much advice about painting techniques but encouraged artists to “Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”
Homer continued to inspire and influence Americans throughout the 20th century. In 1962, the US Post Office honoured Homer with a commemorative stamp. The image showed a copy of the painting Breezing Up, which Homer painted between 1873 and 1876. It depicts a relatively calmer sea than in his later works. In 2010, the Post Office produced another stamp featuring another of Homer’s paintings. It was printed as part of a series of “American Treasures”.
Newspapers during the 1890s called Homer “Yankee Robinson Crusoe, cloistered on his art island” and “a hermit with a brush”. Homer never married and spent most of his time alone. In 1909, he declined an invitation to spend Thanksgiving with his brother because he preferred to stay home and paint. Due to his reclusive nature, very little is known about Homer as a person. The subject matters of his paintings suggest he liked nature and the outdoors, particularly by the sea. Earlier works indicated which side he supported during the Civil War and how he felt about the treatment of African Americans, but none of these interpretations are fully reliable. Despite Homer’s prolific output and popularity, the man remains a mystery.
Unlike artists of the Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age and other European eras, Homer’s popularity did not spread outside of his home country. Other Americans, such as Andy Warhol, became known for their controversial topics and styles, while Homer’s powerful paintings were overlooked. The National Gallery, with support from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is finally introducing the UK to this phenomenal artist. With 50 paintings on display, Winslow Homer becomes the next artist in the gallery’s attempt to introduce major American artists to a European audience. Previous artists in the programme have included Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.
Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is open until 8th January 2023. The standard admission price is £12, although some concessions are available. Tickets must be booked in advance.