Homer became one of the all-time leading figures in American art, known
for his marine genre paintings and for his espousing of
Realism, especially of American life. From the
1880s until his death in 1910, Winslow Homer's work was focused on
issues of mortality and the forces of nature such as violent storms at
sea. Winslow Homer was one of the most well known artists to come out of
the Civil War.
Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836, the second of the three children, all sons, of Henrietta Benson and Charles Savage Homer. The son of a Boston hardware merchant, Winslow Homer spent his childhood fishing instead of studying art. His mother was a gifted amateur watercolorist and Homer’s first teacher, and 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 humor; and her artistic talent. At 19, Homer was apprenticed to a local lithographer, and his drawings were soon appearing in the illustrated periodicals of the day. Winslow Homer often drew pretty girls to adorn the covers of popular songs. Although the superior quality of his work earned him more and more responsibility, Winslow Homer found the work stifling and tedious, and upon attaining his majority he left the shop to become a freelance illustrator.
In 1859 Winslow Homer moved to New York City, where he studied briefly at the National Academy of Design, took a few painting lessons with Frederic Rondel, and set up a studio at the 10th Street Studio Building. In the late 1850's Winslow Homer began doing work for Harper's Weekly. His early work for Harper's was primarily to create line art drawings from photographs. In only about a year of self-training, Winslow Homer was producing excellent oil work. Harper's often did not cite Winslow Homer as the artist for pictures that they published. Winslow Homer was sometimes referred to as their "Special Artist". However, this designation was also used for other artists as well. As such, it can be difficult to know which Harper's illustrations were done by Homer, particularly in his early years with the paper. Winslow Homer's 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. During the war, Winslow Homer created pictures of the loneliness and the pastimes of soldiers far from home. He painted his first oil during this period, again with almost no instruction; for Homer believed that a man who wished to be an artist must not look at other artists' work. Consequently, Winslow Homer remained resolutely alone, refusing to have anything to do with European art. Homers initial war drawings for Harpers depicted Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's army on the banks of the Potomac in Oct. 1861. The following year he was dispatched as a "special artist" to cover the Peninsula Campaign.
Though Winslow Homer did not serve again as a special, he made frequent excursions to the battlefronts and filled his sketchbook with drawings, from which he worked in his studio in New York. Double-page woodcuts of his illustrations depicting battles and camp scenes appeared in Harpers throughout the war years. Winslow Homer was not specifically a combat artist; his work was concerned with the intimate moments of camp life and human interest rather than with the panorama of clashing armies. Supplied with his firsthand observations made at the front, he translated these drawings into canvases such as "Yankee Sharpshooter" (1862). In 1865 Winslow Homer's painting "Prisoners at the Front", depicting Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow questioning Confederate captives, was acclaimed by critics and immediately established his reputation as a painter of note. Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer's expanding skills from illustrator to painter. Like with his urban scenes, Winslow Homer also illustrated women during war time, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, however, Homer would regain his strength and re-focus his artistic vision.
After the Civil War, Winslow Homer traveled and studied in Europe for several years including France from 1866 to 1867, where he shared a studio in Montmartre with fellow artist Albert Warren Kelsey. Several small paintings are extant from that period as are the three illustrations for Harper's Weekly that had helped to finance his trip. Winslow Homer returned to New York where he continued as an illustrator and painted a series of genre pictures of children and country life. These met with both enthusiastic public approval and some critical disapproval. Often repeated by later critics, the complaint centered around being disturbed by the simplicity and the force of Homer's statements.
Like all artists who work alone, Winslow Homer matured slowly, and as he matured, he lost interest in portrayals of the land and children. In 1883, Winslow Homer moved from New York to Maine where he set up a studio close to the wild and rocky coast and began his series of watercolors of the sea and its people, before finally losing interest in people altogether, and confining himself almost entirely to "the lonely sea and the sky." His watercolors are so powerful that it is difficult to believe that Homer was himself "a small, reserved gentleman, quiet and unostentatious." His view of nature was severe and, even in the scenes of tropical waters, brilliant in color, indicative of his belief that man himself is nothing in comparison to the vastness of the ocean
Winslow Homer 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 Winslow Homer experimented freely with the watercolor medium, producing works of the utmost vigor and subtlety, hymns to solitude, nature, and to outdoor life. Homer doesn’t shrink from the savagery of blood sports nor the struggle for survival. The color effects are boldly and facilely applied. In terms of quality and invention, Homer's achievements as a watercolorist are unparalleled. Winslow Homer continued to travel widely, to the Adirondacks, Canada, Bermuda, Florida, and the Caribbean, in all those places painting the watercolors upon which much of his later fame would be based. In 1890 he painted the first of the series of seascapes at Prout's Neck that were the most admired of his late paintings in oil. It is interesting to note the contrast in the subject matter of his work. Winslow Homer's early work captured the horror of the Civil War, and towards the end of his life, his work captured the peace and serenity of the Maine Coast. Homer Winslow exhibited almost annually at the Brooklyn Art Association, and the National Academy of Design. Winslow Homer was a member of the Century Association from 1865 until his death on September 29, 1910. He is buried in a family plot in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.