Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Winslow Homer

Aug 1, 2015 by

w homer

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans – Winslow Homer

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, in terms of capturing the beauty of America and the American spirit, I can think of no other painter than Winslow Homer. What were his early formative years like?

Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 24, 1836. His father was a businessman, and constantly sought out new opportunities for financial gain. These efforts would result in his traveling to locations as distant as California and Europe, causing him to be gone from home for long periods of time. As a consequence, Homer was influenced to a much greater degree by his mother while he was growing up. Not only did Homer inherit many of her personality traits, but he also showed the same artistic capabilities that she had demonstrated throughout her life with watercolors. While he proved to be an average student in other subjects, Homer excelled in art throughout his school years.

  1. His first jaunt into painting was actually lithography. What can you tell us about those endeavors?

While his father was often absent, he was in Massachusetts after Homer graduated from high school. Since Homer had not yet chosen a career, his father decided to find an occupation for him. A Boston lithographer named J.H. Bufford had run an advertisement to help find an apprentice, and Homer’s father thought that he would be perfect for that position. As a result, Homer went to work making lithographs.

Much of his work revolved around creating lithographic illustrations for the sheet music of popular songs, but he also had the opportunity to focus on other subjects. After two years, Homer left Bufford and went to work on his own. His work with lithographs had helped him develop the ability to compose illustrations quickly, and that made him highly desirable to popular journals that needed illustrations done in a timely manner for their publications.

Harper’s Weekly made frequent use of his talents, and at the start of the Civil War the journal hired him to accompany the Union Army and create illustrations of what he witnessed. This experience gave Homer the inspiration to create a number of paintings, and these works of art helped make him the most famous artist in the United States.

  1. I understand he spent some time in one of the coastal towns in England. How did that come about?

While we know much about Homer’s professional life, details of his personal life are a bit murkier. For example, although we are far from certain about the subject, it appears that Homer suffered some emotional setback in the 1870s. This caused him to withdraw from social settings, and led to him briefly living in a light house. Determining that he needed a change in his life, Homer decided to spend time in England. Selecting a village on the northeast coast known as Cullercoats, Homer moved there in 1881. During the two-year period that he lived there, Homer studied the residents of the coastal village with great interest. In particular, Homer found the women fascinating subjects. Using watercolors almost exclusively, Homer used these women as the inspiration for a number of paintings. Reviewing these works, it is clear that Homer’s artwork became something altogether different as a result of his time in England.

  1. His seascapes seem to be almost his trademark. Why did Americans of his time period have such an affinity for this realm of art?

Today, most people remember Homer for his paintings that use water themes as their subject, but he had been a successful artist for an appreciable period of time before he contributed anything to that genre. Instead, his early work focused on, if anything, themes involving country living. As previously noted, his work from the Civil War period dealt with subjects based on his direct observations. After the war, he began to use women and children as his subjects. Finally, in 1876 he produced a work titled “Breezing Up,” a painting that depicts a man with his sons maneuvering a sailboat in a strong wind. From that point on, Homer would frequently use the sea as a motif for his work.

  1. Unlike many other painters Winslow Homer seemed to be well versed in many different formats and scenarios- even his paintings of croquet were unsurpassed! He painted mountains, shores, beaches, seascapes. Did he ever elaborate on his propensity for engaging in such different scenes?

Homer was a multi-faceted artist, both in terms of his subject matter and the media that he worked with. Why he shifted his focus as he did, however, remains unclear. One example of this paradox involves the 1876 painting “Breezing Up.” That painting seems to suggest that Winslow was transitioning to nautical subject matter, but that was also the year that saw him produce “A Visit From the Old Mistress.” This painting depicts an elderly white woman in the presence of a group of African-Americans of mixed age. It can be inferred that the elderly female at one time owned the African-American adults, and this has created an interesting dynamic when she has come to visit. Considering that the period in American history known as Reconstruction was just coming to a close when this painting was done, it is fascinating to ponder why Homer decided that this would be the moment to examine the subject. It is doubtful that we will ever fully understand his motivation on this subject, or any other for that matter, as Homer was remarkably reticent about his art.

  1. What were his later years like and how was he ultimately recognized in American art?

Winslow Homer lived to the age of 74, and remained a productive artist until his dying day. Indeed, he left behind an unfinished painting of a canoe attempting to stay afloat as it descends the rapids on the Saguenay River. Interestingly, three years before his death he told a young artist to paint any subject except rocks until he got old—exactly the subject matter that Homer was himself frequently focusing on at that time. Highly regarded during his lifetime, Homer remained an influential force in the American art world long after his death. While modern artists clearly do not embrace his technique, many share his careful attention to his subject matter.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

Homer once said Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.” This advice should serve as an inspiration to our nation’s aspiring artists, now and forever.

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