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Winslow Homer in Cullercoats

Looking Out to Sea, watercolour
This story about a recent exhibition of Winslow Homer’s paintings and drawings at the Milwaukee Art Museum begins with some personal details. I was born and raised in the north-east of England, in an area of farms and coal mines lying between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a small coastal village called Cullercoats. England may be a small country, but in the British context the north-east is considered remote from ‘the center’ (i.e., London). This was even more true in the nineteenth century, when Cullercoats was a tiny dot on the map, just one of thousands of little bays on the coasts where close-knit communities of tough men and women made a dangerous living from the sea. How extraordinary it is, then, to discover that American artist Winslow Homer lived and worked in Cullercoats, England, for close to two years beginning in May 1881.

Biographers are unsure as to why Homer chose such an obscure place for this extended stay. Nevertheless, it fits into a pattern of nineteenth century artists seeking out small seaside towns as a way to regenerate their artistic vision or to escape the trappings of bourgeois life and get in touch with the “authenticity” of working class life. Think Courbet, Manet, Boudin, and Monet visiting the Normandy coast, or Paul Gauguin and Brittany. In Winslow Homer’s case, he had already become moderately successful in New York in the decades after the US Civil War, painting scenes of good honest working folk bathed in warm evening sunlight. The first rooms in this exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum are devoted to these pieces, such as Song of the Lark (1876), which depicts a field worker, hat in his left hand and scythe tucked under his right arm, pausing to listen to the birdsong with a stirred expression on his face. In subject matter and execution, such paintings were influenced by French realists such as Jules Breton, who made a painting with the same name but depicting a female worker. This style of work strikes us as idealized, omitting all the harshness of nineteenth century farm work in favor of pictures of contented peasants in harmony with nature, though at the time Winslow Homer’s version of this pastoral style was praised for its honesty and immediacy.

Tense Moments, charcoal and white chalk
He himself must have felt something was lacking, and so for some reason or other he found himself in 1881 taking rooms at a hotel in the north of England, overlooking a small bay and facing the dour slate gray waters of the North Sea. The bulk of the exhibition consists of the work he produced in Cullercoats: dozens of watercolors and drawings depicting the tough working conditions in this small horseshoe-shaped harbor. Some of the pictures in this exhibition, such as Fishermen in Oilskins, show groups of men huddled together against a sea wall while the rain and spray lashes the ground around them. Most frequently, the subject is a woman or groups of women seen in profile, looking out to sea. A typical example is The Watcher, a watercolor of a woman standing on the shore, her apron being lifted by the strong wind that also roils up the waves behind her.

The Watcher, watercolour
She might be pausing in her work, but she seems to be looking towards those boats in the distance, or out of the picture into an unseen distance, waiting anxiously for the return of the men. Words like “epic” and “statuesque” can be overused, but they seem appropriate in this context. The women certainly do not come across as portraits of idealized Victorian femininity. They have the air of the tough real-life fisher-women of Cullercoats, who would often carry baskets of fish weighing forty pounds to a market ten miles inland.

There is a clear similarity in the composition of these Cullercoats watercolors and his earlier ‘farm’ paintings, in that Homer was striving to make his working-class subjects, whether American or English, stand as symbols for more abstract virtues like steadfastness, patience, inner strength. But in the case of the English watercolors, that symbolizing tendency seems more rooted in reality. In his American paintings, we admire the technique, but in his watercolors we can almost smell the salty air.

The Fisher Girl, oil on canvas
It wasn’t long after Homer returned to the United States that he decamped from New York to the coast of Maine, probably because it reminded him of the geography and communities he had found in the north-east of England. The work he produced in Cullercoats provided material for paintings produced years later. The Fisher Girl, from 1894, is an oil painting of, yes, you guessed it, a fisherwoman in profile, net thrown over one shoulder, hand against her brow to indicate that she is peering out to sea. The coastline in the picture is undetermined, though it has the same stormy sky and water as his English paintings. In this writer’s opinion, a certain amount of stylization has appeared in this painting, an affectation that becomes even more pronounced in his later and more famous paintings of Maine. Such pictures lack the directness of the work he made in Cullercoats, with its rougher edges and greater spontaneity. Opinions may continue to differ about the relative merits of work from different periods of Winslow Homer’s life, but this exhibition makes a convincing claim for the deep influence on him of this eighteen-month stay in a tiny English fishing town

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