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Home / Great Artists / H / Winslow Homer / Biography
Biography Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer Biography


American Realist Painter

Winslow Homer (February 24, 1836 - September 29, 1910) was an American landscape painter, most famous for his marines. Largely self-taught, he is considered one of the foremost painters in 19th century America, and a preeminent figure in American art.
Early life
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Homer was apprenticed to a Boston commercial lithographer at the age of 19. By 1857 his freelance illustration career was underway and he contributed to magazines such as Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly. His early works, mostly commercial engravings, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings - qualities that remained important throughout his career.
In 1859 he opened a studio in New York City, and began his painting career. Harper's sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861 - 1865), where he sketched battle scenes and mundane camp life. His initial sketches were of the camp and army of the famous Union officer, Major General George B. McClellan at the banks of the Potomac River in October, 1861. Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer's transition from illustrator to painter. Back at his studio after the war, Homer set to work on a series of war-related paintings, among them Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, and Prisoners from the Front, which is noted for its objectivity and realism.
Early landscapes
After exhibiting at the National Academy of Design, Homer traveled to Paris, France in 1867 where he remained for a year. He practiced landscape painting while continuing to work for Harper's. Though his interest in depicting natural light parallels that of the impressionists, there is no evidence of direct influence.
Throughout the 1870s he painted mostly rural or idyllic scenes of farm life, children playing, and young adults courting. Homer gained acclaim as a painter in the late 1870s and early 1880s. His 1872 composition, Snap-the-Whip, was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Homer was a member of the The Tile Club, a group of artists and writers who met frequently to exchange ideas and organize outings for painting. Homer's nickname in The Tile Club was The Obtuse Bard. Other well known Tilers were painters William Merritt Chase, Arthur Quartley, and the sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens.
In 1873 Homer started painting with watercolours. His impact on the medium would be revolutionary. Homer's watercolor paintings exhibit a fresh, spontaneous, loose, yet natural style. Thereafter, he seldom travelled without paper, brushes and water based paints. Homer once remarked, "You will see, in the future, I will live by my watercolors".
In 1875 Homer quit working as a commercial illustrator. He travelled widely, spending two years (1881 - 1882) in the English coastal village of Cullercoats, Northumberland, where he rekindled his boyhood interest in the sea, and painted the local fisherfolk. Many of the paintings at Cullercoats took as their subjects young women mending nets or looking out to sea; they are imbued with a solidity, sobriety, and earthy heroism which was new to Homer's art, and they presage the direction of his future work.
Maine and maturity
Back in the U.S., he moved to Prout's Neck, Maine (in Scarborough) and painted the seascapes for which he is best known. Notable among these dramatic struggle-with-nature images are Banks Fisherman, Eight Bells, The Gulf Stream, Rum Cay, Mending the Nets, and Searchlight, Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba. Although Homer never taught, these works strongly influenced succeeding generations of American painters for their direct and energetic interpretation of man's stoic relationship to an often neutral and sometimes harsh wilderness (See Lost on the Grand Banks, collection of Bill Gates). Robert Henri called Homer's work an "integrity of nature". (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, HarperCollins, 1984).
In the winter Homer ventured to warmer locations in Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Additionally he found inspiration in a number of summer trips to the North Woods Club, near the hamlet of Minerva, New York in the Adirondack Mountains. It was on these fishing vacations that he experimented freely with the watercolor medium, producing works of the utmost vigor and subtlety, hymns to solitude.
Homer died at the age of 74 in his Prout's Neck studio and was interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His painting, Shoot the Rapids, remains unfinished.