How Winslow Homer Became One of the Medium’s Greatest Masters
Perhaps America’s greatest maritime painter, Winslow Homer became one of the masters of the watercolor medium as well. Mostly self-taught, Homer is known for the visceral force of the waves in his oil paintings, but his watercolors are an antidote to any visual heaviness and weight. As his early paintings reveal, watercolor is where he shined as an artist with a graceful, innovative hand.
Boys in a Dory
Four boys sit in a deep-sided boat. Straw hats shield their faces from the summer sun. The water is calm, save for ripples that break reﬂections into long strips of color, and a breeze powers two distant schooners and a sailboat.
The sky appears ﬂat and gray, but the water reveals bits of blue — openings in the clouds allowing sunlight through. A boy rows with a single oar, positioned almost directly in the center of the composition. The boy in front of him looks ahead, while the one in back leisurely dangles his bare feet over the boat’s stern.
Winslow Homer’s Boys in a Dory feels spontaneously plucked out of its larger context. The stern of the boat has been cropped from the picture. We can see only one boy’s face, appearing less conﬁdent than the other boys’, as he sits within the hull partially hidden by the dory’s sides. He peeks at us from beneath the wide brim of his hat.
Scenes from the daily lives of common folk — especially from the lives of children — were hallmarks of Homer’s ﬁrst watercolors. His engraved illustrations and oil paintings of Civil War subjects cemented his reputation as an artist by the late 1860s.
He wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with watercolors. His mother was a skilled amateur watercolorist and likely introduced him to the medium at an early age.
Homer had used watercolor washes in drawings for engravings and in preparatory sketches for oil paintings, but it wasn’t until 1873 that he made his ﬁrst watercolors for exhibition.
At this time, the concept of using watercolor as a serious artistic medium was still in its infancy in America. Established just seven years earlier, the American Society of Painters in Water Colors, later renamed the American Watercolor Society, was slowly raising the medium’s public proﬁle.
In 1873, the Society sponsored an exhibition of nearly 600 American and European watercolors at New York’s National Academy of Design. Homer would have seen this exhibition, and it presumably sparked his interest in using watercolor for ﬁnished works.
Inspired by Play
That summer, Homer left for Gloucester, Mass., where he made his ﬁrst paintings in the watercolor medium. From June through August, he observed and painted children playing around the wharves and boatyards.
In this ﬁrst watercolor series, children haul baskets of clams, climb on beached dories and row small boats near shore. They pick berries in coastal meadows and hunt for eggs on sandy cliffs. Perhaps most touchingly, they gaze out to sea, waiting for their ﬁshermen fathers.
In Homer’s early paintings, children seem at one with nature. They exist apart from adults as hopeful ﬁgures in an idyllic, rural world; but, in the art and literature of post-Civil War America, children were seen as both harbingers of a new era and as symbols of the nation’s lost innocence.
Homer started his Gloucester watercolors with loose graphite underdrawings on top of which he applied washes, along with opaque watercolor and gouache. He used paper with a smooth ﬁnish, but didn’t wet it ﬁrst, as was the common practice among watercolorists who made tightly detailed works.
Applying the paint to a dry surface caused tiny ﬂecks of white to show through, creating a sort of sparkling effect that strengthened the overall sense of light in the works. To capture the brightest points of light, Homer either preserved the white paper or applied opaque white watercolor or gouache; both techniques can be seen in Boys in a Dory.
The year after his summer in Gloucester, Homer presented watercolors at the annual exhibition of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors. Critics were torn over these works, hailing them as fresh and original, but also condemning them as raw and unﬁnished.
Some praised the subject matter as quintessentially American, while others thought it rude and commonplace. A writer for the New York Daily Tribune called the watercolors “memorandum blots and exclamation points.” He goes on: “[the paintings are] so pleasant to look at, we are almost content not to ask Mr. Homer for a ﬁnished piece.”
Yet another New York critic wrote that in Homer’s watercolors, “you feel the blow of the salt sea breezes and shade your eyes from the dazzling sun glare.” None of them could have predicted that these depictions of children in a New England ﬁshing town marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment to watercolor that would make Homer one of the greatest innovators of the medium.
In 1875, Homer made his last illustration for Harper’s Weekly, which had been his main source of income. That year, he showed 27 watercolors — including more from Gloucester — at the Society’s annual exhibition.
The sheer number of works publicly declared his embrace of the medium and foreshadowed the statement he would later make to his dealer: “You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors.”
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Article written by Tamera Lenz Muente, associate curator of the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati and a regular contributing writer to Watercolor Artist.