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#BornThisDay: Painter, Winslow Homer

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February 24, 1836– Winslow Homer was one of the most prolific and important American artists of the 19th century. If you read #BornThisDay often, you know that I have a passion for American painting; recent columns have celebrated Thomas Hart BentonJohn Singer Sargent and Grant Wood.  Homer is certainly a favorite. He created a modern American classical style, a sort of visual equivalent to the writings of Henry ThoreauHerman Melville or Walt Whitman.

Born in Boston, Homer started his career as a commercial print-maker in NYC, where he made his home in 1859. In October, 1861, he received an assignment to report from the front lines in Virginia as an artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. Homer’s Civil War paintings were more a matter of reporting than the kind of art work you might frame for your home. They were more in the manner of his advertising prints. When the War Between The States ended, his paintings brought a more profound understanding of the war’s impact and meaning on our country’s citizens.

“Prisoners From The Front” (1866)

After the Civil War, and back in NYC, Homer made his living doing magazine illustrations and building his reputation as a painter, but he found most of his subjects in the popular seaside resorts of Massachusetts and New Jersey, and in great outdoors of the Adirondacks of New York State and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Late in 1866, two of his Civil War paintings were shown in Paris at the Exposition Universelle. For the next year he explored Paris and the French countryside. Homer shared an interest in the same subjects and styles as the French painters of the era: Fascination with serial imagery, and a desire to use outdoor light, simple forms and expressive brushwork.

In 1875, Homer began to paint using watercolors instead of oils, with solid success. The sales of his work enabled him to give up his job as an illustrator. He returned to Virginia to observe and portray what had happened to the lives of former slaves during the first decade of Emancipation.

In the early 1880s, Homer began to desire solitude, and his paintings took on a startling intensity. In 1881, he traveled to England, and after visiting London, he settled in Cullercoats, a village on the North Sea, staying for 18 months. He observed the tough, courageous lives of the locals, whom he depicted in their boats, hauling and cleaning fish, and mending their nets. When Homer returned home to the USA, he was a changed man and a changed artist.

Detail from “Undertow” (1866)

In the summer of 1883, Homer moved to Prout’s Neck, a village in Maine, where he produced dazzling paintings, and where he lived for the rest of his life. He enjoyed the isolation and he was inspired by his privacy and the silence. This is where Homer painted the great themes of his career: The struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile human life against the brute force of nature. His most famous paintings, the ones you think of when you hear his name, pictures of men challenging the power of the ocean with their own strength and cunning and responding to the water’s overwhelming force in scenes of dramatic rescues are from this period.

But by 1890, Homer gave up depictions of humans altogether and simply concentrated on the dynamic drama of the sea itself. His richly textured and composed seascapes capture the look and feel of rushing and receding waves. You can almost hear the sounds of the crash of water. In his own lifetime, these paintings were his most admired works, noted for Homer’s first exciting hints of modernist abstraction.

“Main Coast” (1896)

Homer refused to answer questions about his personal life from critics and biographers. He left no revealing diaries or papers, and he produced no self-portraits. He was a lifelong bachelor and extraordinarily shy. Homer himself hinted at this sentiment in a 1908 note to a reporter:

“I think that it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear–and as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it.”

He did have a very close relationship with Albert Kelsey, another New England artist whom he met in 1858. They lived and traveled together for more than a decade.

But, the closest companion in his life was an African-American gentleman, Lewis Wright, who lived at Homer’s Maine estate for 25 years. It is known that Homer’s neighbors were made uncomfortable by the closeness of his relationship, especially when the two men were spotted leaving the gym together after core class and sharing an iPod, sweetly, each taking a single earbud. They both were into early R&B, and they listened while soaking in natural hot springs together

A photograph made while the to men lived together in Paris, apes the conventions of the period’s marriage portraits, as do so many photographic portraits of male friendships of this period. I am smart enough to know that many of the vintage photographs in my own collection represent male romantic comradeship and not necessarily sex partners, but we can never really be sure. As old as I am, I missed this epoch. But the title of the photograph of Homer and Wright is Damon And Pythias, the famous ancient Greek heroes and lovers.

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Damon And Pythias (Wright with Homer, Paris, 1890) from NYC Public Library Archives

Homer put down his brushes for good in 1910, gone at 74-years old, at his studio in Prout’s Neck.

“The Woodcutter” (1891)


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