Winslow Homer: Paintings, Facts & Biography

Instructor: Matthew Hill
In this lesson we will explore the life and work of Winslow Homer, who is considered one of the best American artists of the nineteenth century. He is recognized for his rural landscapes and best known for his seascapes.

The Makings of an Artist

Winslow Homer is considered to be one of America's greatest artists of the nineteenth century. This lesson will explore his beginnings as an artist and several prominent themes found in his paintings: his early representations of the Civil War, his rural landscapes, and finally his celebrated seascapes.

Winslow Homer was born in Boston in 1836, the middle child of two other brothers. His father was a businessman who ran a hardware store and tried, but failed, to make his fortune in the California Gold Rush. His mother was a watercolorist, and was more influential in shaping the young Homer's love of art. His academic talents were average, but he showed early talent in art. Homer first began working as a commercial printmaker, lithographer, and illustrator for several magazines, most notably Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly. He worked in this role for nearly two decades.

Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer

Despite his talent, Homer always sought to improve. In 1859, he opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York. He also studied at the National Academy of Design - which was an institution founded in 1825 to promote art appreciation in America - and really mastered his craft and his oil painting techniques under the tutelage of the French painter Frederic Rondel, who had opened a studio in New York and focused on landscape and rural scenes. Homer soon became an established oil painter and he concentrated much of his work on rural Massachusetts, the seaside of New Jersey, and White Mountains of New Hampshire. Although he was very talented, he continued to work for magazines until he could make a living as an independent artist.

Civil War Theme

In 1863, Harpers Weekly sent Homer to the front lines during the Civil War to illustrate wartime scenes. His did several paintings of camp life, soldiers, key personalities in the war, and the front lines. Two of his best received paintings are The Veteran in a New Field and Prisoners from the Front.

The Veteran in a New Field, completed in 1865, a few months after the war ended, shows a Union soldier gleaning wheat in a field with an outdated scythe tool. The scythe, with its longtime association with the Grim Reaper, symbolizes death, but the soldier's return to his civilian farming life implies a new beginning.

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field
Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field

Prisoners from the Front, completed in 1866, a year after the war ended, shows the surrender of Confederate prisoners to Union General Francis Channing Barlow with the Petersburg battlefield in the background. Homer was a personal friend of Barlow's and so became a natural subject.

Winslow Homer, Prisoners from the Front
Winslow Homer, Prisoners from the Front

Rural Life Theme

Homer's greatest output and some of his best known works emerged in the 1860s and 1870s. An interesting point about Homer's work is that he was not fixated on a single subject matter. For example, Homer poured out a lot of work on portraying the idyllic small-town side of rural life. His painting Boys in a Pasture quietly shows two boys lying a field. His work The Country School depicts a quaint one-room schoolhouse, which became a very nostalgic image in the growing industrial landscape.

Winslow Homer, The Country School
Winslow Homer, The Country School

One of his most celebrated works is his Snap the Whip, which shows young boys and girls locked hand-in-hand playing a game outdoors. His painting Haymaking shows a young teenager shoveling hay with a pitchfork. Also, his work The Morning Bell shows rural factory workers on their way to work. Though these themes were popular in his time, Homer helped demonstrate that simplistic themes and painting the everyday experiences of people could have wide appeal. Much like Currier and Ives made a living capturing small-town American life, Homer built a career out of such themes.

Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip
Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip

Homer Travels Abroad

In 1867, Homer traveled to Paris to exhibit his Prisoners on the Front at the Exposition Universelle, which was a world fair that showcased new art among other fields. This was a distinguished honor and brought him to the attention of European artists. Homer also twice traveled to England where he took advantage of European landscapes.

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