Largely self-taught, Homer began his career working as a commercial illustrator. He subsequently took up oil painting and produced major studio works characterized by the weight and density he exploited from the medium. He also worked extensively in watercolour, creating a fluid and prolific oeuvre, primarily chronicling his working vacations.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836, Homer was the second of three sons of Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer, both from long lines of New Englanders. His mother was a gifted amateur watercolourist and Homer’s first teacher. She and her son had a close relationship throughout their lives. Homer took on many of her traits, including her quiet, strong-willed, terse, sociable nature; her dry sense of humour; and her artistic talent.
After Homer’s high school graduation, his father saw a newspaper advertisement and arranged for an apprenticeship. Homer’s apprenticeship at the age of 19 to J. H. Bufford, a Boston commercial lithographer, was a formative but “treadmill experience”.
By 1857, his freelance career was underway after he turned down an offer to join the staff of Harper’s Weekly. “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone”, Homer later stated, “I have had no master, and never shall have any.” Before moving to New York in 1859, Homer lived in Belmont, Massachusetts with his family. His uncle’s Belmont mansion, the 1853 Homer House, was the inspiration for a number of his early illustrations and paintings, including several of his 1860s croquet pictures. The Homer House, owned by the Belmont Woman’s Club, is open for public tours.
In 1859, he opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, the artistic and publishing capital of the United States. Until 1863, he attended classes at the National Academy of Design, and studied briefly with Frédéric Rondel, who taught him the basics of painting.
In only about a year of self-training, Homer was producing excellent oil work. His mother tried to raise family funds to send him to Europe for further study but instead Harper’s sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War, where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the chaotic ones.
Near the beginning of his painting career, the 27-year-old Homer demonstrated a maturity of feeling, depth of perception, and mastery of technique which was immediately recognized. His realism was objective, true to nature, and emotionally controlled. One critic wrote, “Winslow Homer is one of those few young artists who make a decided impression of their power with their very first contributions to the Academy…. He at this moment wields a better pencil, models better, colours better, than many whom, were it not improper, we could mention as regular contributors to the Academy.”
Homer never taught in a school or privately, as did Thomas Eakins, but his 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. Robert Henri called Homer’s work an “integrity of nature”.
Unlike many artists who were well known for working in only one art medium, Winslow Homer was prominent in a variety of art media, his paintings often depicted marine landscapes. Later, when Winslow Homer spent the years between 1881 and 1882 in the village of Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear, his paintings depicting shores and coastal landscapes changed. Many of the paintings from the English coast have as subjects working men and women from the area.
By 1900, Homer finally reached financial stability, as his paintings fetched good prices from museums and he began to receive rents from real estate properties. He also became free of the responsibilities of caring for his father, who had died two years earlier. Homer continued producing excellent watercolours, mostly on trips to Canada and the Caribbean. Other late works include sporting scenes such as Right and Left, as well as seascapes absent of human figures, mostly of waves crashing against rocks in varying light. His late seascapes are especially valued for their dramatic and forceful expression of natures powers, and for their beauty and intensity.
Homer died in 1910 at the age of 74 in his Prouts Neck studio and was interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His painting, Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River, remains to this day unfinished.