Views of the Grey Sea – Marine Watercolours by Winslow Homer – 1880 to 1890

[English Version]

[Versió Catalana aquí: Vistes de la Mar Grisa – Aquarel·les de Winslow Homer – 1880-1890]

The sea depicted by Winslow Homer, from the coast of New England, fills us often with apprehension, and even some fright when he wanted it. Moreover, both in his well-known oils and in his watercolours –less seen, but equally splendid– from the beginning of the 1870s on, the sea is not only continuously present; it is the protagonist. And of course, along with the sea there appear the sky, the clouds, the atmosphere, the beaches and coastal rocks, lighthouses, boats and ships, the tasks of fishermen and all sort of things and people belonging in the seafaring world.

Homer, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836, began to paint regularly with watercolours during a summer vacation at Gloucester –a fishermen’s harbour at Cape Ann, on the north coast of the same state of Massachusetts. From the very beginning, these paintings on paper showed enormous talent and impeccable technique –which was also revolutionary and would have a major impact on all visual arts in North America since the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century.

Homer’s expressive resources with this medium were broader and more daring than with oil painting; radically impressionists in some works, and quite innovative in the US (watch, for instance, Schooner at Sunset or Sailboat and 4th of July Fireworks –both from 1880–, which I reproduce below). Besides, he used watercolours in many preparatory sketches for some of his most emblematic oils, such as Breezing Up, from 1873-76.

As far as I have noticed, the sea depicted by Homer in his watercolours is comparatively more quiet (sometimes, even benign) than the one in his oils, to which he reserved the roughest and stormiest views (I will show my favourites in a following post.)

My fondness of Homer comes from long ago –from a book about him, very nicely illustrated, that my father had at home when I was little– and I am sure it is justified by the quality of the works; however I must confess that many personal traits and some events in Homer’s life make him even closer to me, and more appreciated, in a subjective way needless to explain; just mention that in the late 1870s, when he fell deeply in love with the sea and focused on watercolour as a preferred way of representation, Homer had become an outsider and a recluse; a kind of hermit with brushes; for a period, he shut himself away at Eastern Point Lighthouse with the light keeper. This light appears in the distance on the first painting shownhere (the following four are all from the same year 1880, and they alone give a clear idea of this man’s originality and preeminent place among all American painters since then to nowadays):

Eastern Point Light (1880 – watercolour over graphite on wove paper, 24.6 x 34.1 cm)

Boys on the Beach (1880)

Gloucester Harbor and Dory

Homer spent two years (1881-1882) in North-West England, in the sailor’s village of Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear. Many of the works painted there (almost all of them watercolours) show a palette similarly restricted and austere –perhaps more than ever before–; they are larger and their motives, more meditated, with a manifest intention of showing us the sea-workers’ –and most especially, women workers’– determination; even heroism, often. The greyness and the stormy weather are more and more present. There is a gloomy mood on them all that –so I think– comes more from inside the artist than from the meteorology and environment of the place —despite these count as well:

On the Sands (1881)

Watching the Tempest (1881)

Fisher Folk in Dory (1981)

Three Fisher Girls (1881)

Girl with Red Stockings (1882)

Daughter of the Coast Guard (1881)

In 1883, back to the USA, Homer settled in Prout Neck, Maine, in a house just by the sea. Over the next years he painted with oils most of his splendid marine scenes (among which: The Life Line (1884), The Herring Net (1885), The Fog Warning (1885), Eight Bells (1886) …) However, he did not left aside watercolour as a medium –not only of expression, but to earn a living, since his oils barely sold and the few ones that found a purchaser reported him scarce profit; 400 $ (more or less equivalent to 10,000 $ today) for Eight Bells seems almost insulting; and this was the first oil he sold in three years! No wonder he entirely gave up painting them during a long period –until 1890.

He poured, then, all his art in watercolours, and those from that period are sensational; a marvel. For the moment, I have selected three of them (perhaps I will add some in the following days):

Returning Fishing Boats (1883)

Waves on a Rocky Coast (1883)

Rowing Home (1890)

Totes les reproduccions que presento aquí provenen de fotos de domini públic. Jo n’he escollit les millors versions que he trobat -la majoria, en les webs dels museus i col·leccions on s’exposen o de galeries que les han exposades en el passat. Tot i amb això, en gairebé tots els cassos, les imatges han estat editades digitalment per mi -amb molta cura- pel que fa a defectes obvis de brillantor, tonalitats o contrast; i per bé que no pretenc pas que les il·lustracions d’aquest post meu siguin del tot fidedignes als originals (un concepte, d’altra banda, força relatiu i variable, segons la il·luminació, el grau de netedat de les pintures, etc.), sí que puc dir que ho són una mica més (en algun cas, molt més) que les que jo he pres com a referències de partida.

Linus Fontrodona, 2017

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3 thoughts on “Views of the Grey Sea – Marine Watercolours by Winslow Homer – 1880 to 1890

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