An afternoon fog has settled on the New England coast, and a weak, white sun is struggling to illuminate the Prouts Neck peninsula in Maine. Beyond an outcropping of dark stone as thick as a castle wall, a keep-like structure with a prominent balcony is silhouetted against the empty sky.
For more than a quarter of a century, the distinctive building in this photo was the home and studio of the reclusive American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910), whom the National Gallery is about to celebrate with an exhibition of around 50 paintings. And according to art historian Simon Schama, Homer’s “uncanny” take on it, The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog (1894), is the closest this taciturn recluse ever got to a self-portrait.
Winslow who? If the name evokes in your mind only a half-formed impression of his work, do not beat yourself up: although Homer is beloved in his homeland, in this country he has disappeared into a kind of limbo. This view of his studio shrouded in mist is actually a metaphor for his reception on this side of the pond – ever since 1878, when one of his pictures, The Cotton Pickers (1876), was first exhibited on these shores, and a careless cataloger at The Royal Academy misidentified him as “W Horner”. A few years later, a British critic called him “Winslow Herron”.
The fact that there is not a single painting by Homer in a public collection here may partly explain this invisibility. Yet our museums are hardly overflowing with pictures by Edward Hopper – and what gallery-goer in Britain is not familiar with his realistic urban scenes of modern alienation?
Even an excellent 2006 exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Winslow Homer: Poet of the Sea, could not move the dial. Its director at the time, Ian Dejardin, suggested that the artist’s low profile in Europe was “astonishing, almost perverse”. Yet 16 years later, Homer is still “largely unknown” in Britain, says the National Gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi.
It’s strange, and not just because Homer in America really is a household name. During his lifetime he established himself as a quintessentially American painter, whose simple, unsentimental compositions were praised by Henry James in 1875 as “lively” and “manly”. At his death in 1910, Homer was perhaps the most famous artist in America—and, says Chris Riopelle, co-curator of the National Gallery’s exhibition, which opens next month after a stint at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “his fame only grew from there. If you have any requirements for visual competence in the United States, then you know Homer very well.”
Britain’s indifference to Homer is even stranger when you consider this biographical fact: in the early 1880s, long after he had established himself as a painter, he decided to visit England and ended up in a small Northumbrian fishing village, where he lived for more than 18 months. Even for scholars of his art who have no skin in the game of promoting it here, this salt-stained sojourn in Cullercoats, at the mouth of the River Tyne, a mile or so south of Whitley Bay on the North Sea—genuinely—was a pivotal point in his career, which ushered in the grand, monumental vision of his later work for which he is most recognized. They say it’s cruel up north, but something about the austere existence of the pre-industrial fishermen, trampled by the mercurial vagaries of a merciless sea, touched Homer deeply.
Before his journey to Northumberland, this self-taught son of a hardware merchant, who had made his name during the 1860s as an artist-correspondent chronicling the Civil War, still painted amusing scenes of everyday life in the post-conflict period. Reconstruction: noisy, barefoot boys engaged in rough farm games; elegant ladies in crinolines enjoying a spot of croquet on a lawn; a sleek sailboat chopping through a Massachusetts harbor under, as the title puts it, “a fair wind.”
Afterwards, however, Homer’s fair-weather art darkened and became more serious and sinister, as he became attuned to the destructive power of nature. For the subject he turned to gales and great waves, as well as moments of danger, from which he did not deviate until his death. Within a year of his return to America, he had moved from New York to Prouts Neck, where, as he had done at Cullercoats, he could overlook the ocean.
Why Cullercoats? To answer this we have to go back to the 1870s, when Homer was already looking for a change in his art – and his interest in the sea was increasing, as suggested by the 1873-76 picture of a sailboat, Breezing Up ( A Good Wind ). He increasingly thought of JMW Turner, the gaunt master of marine painting, then considered Britain’s best painter, whose work was the talk of avant-garde circles in America.
In 1872, for example, the American businessman and collector John Taylor Johnston, who already owned Homer’s most famous Civil War canvas, Prisoners from the Front (1866), bought from the art critic John Ruskin Turner’s harrowing 1840 slave ship, now in Boston—and we know that Homer was present the night Johnston unveiled it in New York.
On 15 March 1881, Homer sailed aboard the SS Parthia, bound for Liverpool. From there he made his way to London, but he only stayed a week – finding time to execute just one atmospheric watercolor of the Palace of Westminster under a red moon – before moving on to Cullercoats.
As destinations go, a small settlement above Newcastle upon Tyne, albeit one with picturesque views across the bay to the ruins of Tynemouth Priory, might sound a bit random to an artist from another continent. There is even a story – which Riopelle dismisses – that Homer only heard of the seaside village for the first time on his journey over. Indeed, Cullercoats was already something of a tourist destination as well as a colony for artists with one eye on a market for scenes of simple fishermen. The English painter Frank Holl, for example, had produced No Tidings from the Sea (1870) after a holiday there.
Homer, a lifelong bachelor, only intended to stay for six months, but stayed longer. It was a remarkably fruitful period. He started at least seven oil paintings, including Hark! The Lark (1882) – the title is taken from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline – which depicts a frieze-like group of three young women, laden with baskets and nets, suspending their work to listen to a songbird. Two decades later, Homer described it as “the most important picture I ever painted, and the very best”. He also produced around 150 brilliant sketches and watercolors – a store of images that, Riopelle explains, he could draw on “for years and years afterwards”, long after he left for America on 11 November 1882.
The village’s robust young working girls and fishermen’s wives, with their distinctive disguised costumes, clearly caught his eye. These “mackerel-whiffing Penelopes,” as Schama memorably calls them, are the focus of many of Homer’s watercolors: tail-heavy baskets of plaice and pollock; collecting mussels or bait lines and repairing nets; staring mournfully from shores and clifftops, wrapped in thick fringed shawls.
The National Gallery’s catalog reproduces two photographs recording the appearance of his favorite model, a blue-eyed teenager called Maggie Jefferson, for whom he paid a shilling per sitter. In The Gale (1883–93), hailed in 1916 as “the pinnacle of the painter’s achievements”, a statuesque young mother, a babe strapped to her back, appears isolated on a stage-like strip of soaked stone before a backdrop of angry wrestlers, beaten of the elements, but as monumental as any figure from the Parthenon’s pediments in the British Museum, which we know Homer visited.
He was also obsessed with the local life-saving brigade, and whenever the alarm was raised, whatever the hour, he hurried to sketch the villagers in oilskins and long-brimmed souvestres risking their lives for those in danger. on the sea. In 1881, for example, he witnessed hundreds of villagers banding together to rescue the passengers and crew of the foundering Iron Crown, which had been driven by a storm onto the shoals near Tynemouth – the event that inspired his most ambitious Cullercoats watercolor. The ferocity of the churning sea foreshadows Homer’s famous late Maine landscapes such as Northeaster (1895), while the sea rescue theme anticipates his 1880s dramatic masterpieces The Life Line and Undertow.
In short, Britain unleashed something epic in Homer – so why isn’t he better known here? “Part of it,” says Riopelle, “lies in the fact that he was rounded up so fiercely by Americans from the very beginning: very little [of his work] came abroad.” But perhaps also, says Riopelle, “he was not needed in this country” as he was in America.
In Britain, he explains, “there is a great tradition of landscape painting – of seascape painting – which is arguably the epitome of 19th-century British art. And so, given the strength of Turner, Constable, etc, he is not a necessary figure for the British in the way he is for Americans, who value Homer for “finally describing America” without resorting to the conventions of European painting. “There’s a sense that Homer is putting himself in danger, of coming right into these chaotic, stormy landscapes. And that you-are-there quality of his works has, I think, always resonated very deeply in America. During the age of [the American essayist Ralph Waldo] Emerson, the era of self-reliance in American thought, Homer was the epitome of the self-reliant Yankee.”
I think there is something to this argument – but not “needing” Homer doesn’t mean we should turn him. Finally, thanks to the National Gallery’s exhibition, we can not only make his acquaintance, but also succumb to the undulating, foam-flecked power of his art.
Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is at the National Gallery, London WC2 (nationalgallery.org.uk) from 10 September to 8 January