Winslow Homer: Visions of Life by the Sea

From the Lecture Series: Masterworks of American Art

By William Kloss, M.A., Independent Art Historian

In the early 1880s, Winslow Homer moved from New England to Cullercoats—a fishing village north of London—and, finally, to Prouts Neck, Maine, where he would live the rest of his life. His remarkable watercolor and oil seascapes and scenes of the men and women who lived from the sea at Prouts Neck are memorable in their beauty and striking in their composition.

image of the painting The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer
The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer (Image: Winslow Homer/Public domain)

Beginning in early 1883, the Homer family moved from Cullercoats, a fishing village north of London, to Prouts Neck, Maine, purchasing almost all of the land where they built their family house on. His last major relocation in three years, Winslow Homer moved there that summer, where he established a separate house/studio of his own. Homer remained at Prouts Neck for the rest of his life, except for seasonal visits to the Adirondacks, the Bahamas, and Florida.

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Between Salvation and Disaster

image of painting The Life Line by Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer’s painting The Life Line (Image: Winslow Homer/Public domain)

Cullercoats stayed with him, and the coastal Maine environment gave him the perfect replacement for it, impacting his work in tone, composition, and palette. The Life Line is one of the most remarkable of his oil paintings. The heroism he had intuited in the Cullercoats people was reinvented in his new home. In his determination to capture the weight and threat of the ocean, Homer turned back from watercolor to oil paint.

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The physical density of the paint proved necessary to fully capture the tremendous breakers on the rocky coast. The Life Line is dramatic but stops just short of being melodramatic. His design features the central group of a seaman holding an unconscious woman, while both are supported by the canvas sling, called a “breeches buoy”, drawn by a block and tackle across a rope to the shore.

image of photograph of Winslow Homer in 1880.
Winslow Homer (Image: Napoleon Sarony/Public domain)

The artist’s genius is in the editing of the scene even more than in the figures. He gives us only a hint of the ship on the left side and the shore on the other. Essentially, the two figures are suspended in great peril between walls of water, their rescue cable disappearing out of both sides of the painting. The bold cropping is crucial to the sense of being poised between salvation and disaster. The palette is mostly somber gray-greens and white spume—rising behind the figures, marking their place in the picture. But the strong red slash in the center—one strong note of color— is the woman’s shawl, which has blown over the rescuer’s face; it’s equally important for its color and the resultant anonymity of the man, her rescuer.

The man and woman in The Life Line could almost be entwined lovers in another context.

It heightens another nearly subliminal aspect of the figures: a powerful erotic undertow. Eroticism and danger, or eroticism and salvation or loss, are often commingled in art and literature. The man and woman in The Life Line could almost be entwined lovers in another context. At the National Academy of Design exhibition in the spring of 1884, this painting was acclaimed as a masterpiece. It is the anchor of Homer’s return to oil painting in the mid-1880s.

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A Successful Catch

image of the painting The Herring Net by Winslow Homer
The Herring Net by Winslow Homer (click to enlarge) (Image: Winslow Homer/Art Institute of Chicago/Public domain)

The Herring Net (1885) hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a tour de force of painting: in composition, palette, and brushwork, it is breathtaking. The fishing boat rides on the crest of a wave but behind, on the edge of a trough, a larger wave looms. The central group forms a stable pyramid, but the heave of the sea threatens it. Two fishermen, anonymous beneath their helmet-like hats, pull the trawling net into their boat. The net glistens with the flashing treasure of silver fish, the weight of the catch balanced by the fisherman who sits halfway out of the dory.

In the misty distance on the left and the right can be seen the schooners, which brought fleets of dories out to the fishing waters. Fishermen had to return before dark or fog obscured the mother ships. The sketches that led to this painting were made in 1884 when Homer was rowed out to the fleet by a friend, who later recalled the huge school of herring that arrived off Prouts Neck that summer.

…Homer was an on-the-spot recorder of the subjects he painted.

Like Frederic Church, Homer was an on-the-spot recorder of the subjects he painted. Having made his chalk and charcoal sketches in calmer water, he transformed them into dramatic scenes in the studio. The ship’s oars are intriguing, their crossed form marks both the acme of the pyramidal group and provides a tonal transition into the gray sky.

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The Grim Threat of Fog

image of the painting The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer
The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer (click to enlarge) (Image: Winslow Homer/Public domain)

The dangers of seafaring life play out dramatically in his use of distance and composition. The Fog Warning (1885) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston features a lone fisherman. In this case, he has caught halibut, the large fish in the stern of the boat; there are two there, probably. He is now rowing against a strong sea toward the lone schooner in the right distance, toward which he looks. As he pauses in his rowing, both he and the viewer look at the ominous fog bank filling the horizon and rising in threatening diagonals from the direction of the ship. The weight of the fish is palpable. It’s the prize that also slows the dory’s progress. As always in his art, Homer gauges the horizon carefully, precisely, expressively, and he holds the head of the fisherman just above the fog line.

image of the painting Lost on the Grand Banks by Winslow Homer.
Lost on the Grand Banks by Winslow Homer (click to enlarge)(Image: Winslow Homer/Public domain)

These two paintings were likely intended to be seen together and were shown together in Boston the year after their completion. The successful catch in the first painting was succeeded by the grim fog threat of the second. A third, now in a private collection, joined them at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Called Lost on the Grand Banks, what was a threat in The Fog Warning is now a hopeless reality.

A critic noted in 1866 that, “Mr. Homer always has something to say.” It was an astonishing response that he was recognized so clearly for his mature art. Homer’s subject matter is important because it captures more than just a recording of something, but has a narrative and an attitude embedded in it.

Common Questions About Winslow Homer

Q: Why was Winslow Homer important?

Winslow Homer was revered for the level of detail and complexity of emotion in his oil paintings, which largely revolved around the sea.

Q: What type of artist was Winslow Homer?

The style of art that Winslow Homer created was known as Realism.

Q: Why did Winslow Homer use watercolors?

During Winslow Homer’s time, not many artists used watercolors. He learned watercolor painting from his mother, and liked to experiment with light and dark contrasts in his paintings.

Q: Was Winslow Homer an Impressionist?

Although Winslow Homer wasn’t classified as an Impressionist, his paintings, with their relaxed brushwork, contain elements of Impressionism.

This article was updated on September 16, 2019

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