|Looking Out to Sea, watercolour|
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|
|The Watcher, watercolour|
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|