Was Winslow Homer the Greatest American Painter of the 19th Century?
Winslow Homer occupies a prized place in the pantheon of American artists, beloved for his bright watercolor landscapes and tempestuous seascapes, as well as his depictions of soldiers during the Civil War, portrayals of African-American laborers in Virginia during the Reconstruction era, and his early illustrations of everyday New England life for Harper’s Weekly.
Indeed some regard him as the greatest American painter of the 19th century, as Met curator H. Barbara Weinberg noted in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. But does he deserve this accolade, in a century that also saw the development of the epic Hudson River School painters?
As neither a teacher nor a member of a defined artistic group, Homer doesn’t categorize easily. But his art remains enormously popular, and he has long been regarded as one of America’s early artist icons. “The late 19th century was historically seen as being dominated by six artists,” Katherine Manthorne, a professor of American art at the CUNY Graduate Center told me via email, “the so-called ‘national’ triumvirate of Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, who spent most of their time at home…and the ‘internationals’ John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Mary Cassatt, who were largely expats.”Six artists, each talented and renowned enough to merit inclusion in the country’s top tier of 19th-century painters—so what’s so special, and quintessentially American, about Winslow Homer?
A Place in American History
Born in Boston in 1836 to a shop owner and a painter, Homer’s early artistic talent led to an apprenticeship at age 19 in a commercial lithographer’s studio. After two years of churning out advertising images and illustrated covers for music books, Homer felt unfulfilled. A hunger for artistic independence drove him toward a freelance career in New York City, one in which he would famously create illustrations for the popular periodical Harper’s Weekly over the next two decades, as he also began to develop his painting practice.
His quickly maturing style contained several design elements from his background in illustration: strong outlines, dramatic chiaroscuro, and straightforward compositions. And in 1861, his career would change dramatically when Harper’s sent him to the battlefields of Virginia to sketch scenes from the camps of the American Civil War. Beginning with sketches of everyday life at the front, Homer developed several larger compositions back at his studio—ones that have since become dearly loved images of the war.
His 1863 painting Home, Sweet Home depicts two Union infantrymen thoughtfully listening as the band plays the titular song. While nearly every battle hymn was specific to either the Union or the Confederacy (the “Star-Spangled Banner” for the North, the “Dixie” for the South), “Home, Sweet Home” was a song that expressed a universal longing common to both sides and their families at home. The painting’s exhibition in the spring of 1863 at the National Academy of Design launched him to greater prominence.
In the works Homer created in the immediate years following the Civil War, he continued to portray ordinary Americans in simple images of rural life, returning to Virginia during the mid-1870s and rendering a series of works that explored the lives of freed slaves several years after their emancipation, reinforcing an image of America’s resilient spirit.
A War for Independence (from Artistic Conventions)
Winslow Homer, A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
The National Gallery of Art, which houses Home, Sweet Home, has referred to Homer’s “independence from artistic conventions.” Indeed, Homer’s resistance to influence from foreign artists and movements is another key to the scholarly verdict of his Americanness.
Though Homer spent 10 months between 1866 and 1867 in France, where he began painting en plein air and adopted a greater degree of flatness in his forms, and later settled on the coast of England’s North Sea for almost two years, he persisted in developing a personal aesthetic that exhibited little European influence. (While in France, he did see the work of the Realist painters like Gustave Courbet, but Homer’s own style was largely developed by that point.) An artist like Sargent, by contrast, was born in Florence, Italy, to American parents and lived most of his life in Europe—leaving him somewhat out of the running for the title of greatest 19th-century American painter, along with (mostly) expatriates Whistler and Cassatt.
Placed beside those who painted with more European inflections, Homer’s uncomplicated naturalism has come to constitute something of an authentic American style appreciated by both scholarly and popular audiences. (While Eakins could claim a similar honor, his controversial personal life has proven problematic for scholars in a way that Homer’s relatively solitary biography has not.)
Winslow Homer, Girl Carrying a Basket, 1882. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Homer’s individualistic streak recalls 19th-century transcendentalist calls for freedom and self-reliance that were central to the formation of a still-young idea of the American “spirit.” In 1873, Homer baffled critics with the bold choice—a contemporary critic at the time allegedly decried it as a “desperate move”—to begin painting in watercolor.
“Don’t forget,” Manthorne writes, “he took the medium of watercolor, practiced by his own mother and relegated to the realm of the ‘feminine’ arts, and elevated it to a respected and highly sought-after medium—for men or women.” Girl Carrying a Basket (1882) exemplifies his ability to turn watercolor into deeply textured landscapes, outdoor scenes that quite often serve as the backdrops for the actions of strong, working women.
Built to Last
Winslow Homer, West Point, Prout's Neck, 1900. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Though Homer enjoyed early success, several of his most famous works come from his late career, after 1883, when he settled into a relatively solitary life by the sea in Prout’s Neck, Maine, where visitors today can make a pilgrimage to his former home. “Appreciated for their virtuoso brushwork, depth of feeling, and hints of modernist abstraction,” Weinberg wrote, Homer’s seascapes from the Maine coast often pit Man against the powerful forces of Nature, creating opportunities for dynamism and bravura paint-handling absent from much of his earlier work.
New York Times art critic Holland Cotter noted these later works’ difference, however, from the sublime sea- and landscapes of his contemporaries in the Hudson River School, or even those dreamier, poetic versions of his contemporary Ryder. With Homer, Cotter wrote: “Realness held. These paintings carried mysteries, but their mysteries weren’t divine. They could be measured in knots and fathoms and the mark of the artist’s hand.”
Though these qualities link Homer and Ryder somewhat, the latter’s idiosyncratic and often uneven application of paints and varnishes have left many of his works in states of deterioration. Moreover, Ryder is difficult to attribute: He painted fewer than 200 works that—often left undated and unsigned by the artist—have rendered his oeuvre susceptible to misattribution and forgery.
As a 19th-century American painter, the prolific Homer represented characteristics exemplary of his moment. In his art, he expressed his observations of the nation’s social and political changes, and the simple dignity of everyday people—all with an artistic hand that channeled his own independent spirit. If one can safely call Homer the greatest American painter of the 19th century, it may be above all because he largely remained in America, and because in his work he represented a certain individualistic spirit, one that celebrated a noble vision of hard work and self-sufficiency as the nation rebuilt itself.