While some artists used the medium of watercolor as a handy portable summer tool, ideal for plein-air sketches that could serve as preliminaries to “serious” winter studio oil paintings, this was emphatically not the case for Winslow Homer. While he characteristically addressed the same themes in watercolor and oil, his watercolors were intended to stand on their own as full-fledged works of art. Ever the alert businessman, Homer understood that he could reach a wider audience of patrons and purchasers with his watercolors, than with his substantially more labor intensive (and thus expensive) studio oils. But it was not just economics that drew Homer to watercolor. He appreciated the medium and experimented constantly with it, intent on increasing his ability to capture the spontaneity of fleeting effects of light and motion.
Homer’s initial approach to watercolor had been modest and tentative. In 1870, he sent an Adirondack watercolor to the annual exhibit of the American Society of Painter in Water Colors (later, the American Water Color Society). Three years later, in 1873, with his two-month stay in Gloucester, he produced his first watercolor series. Homer continued to paint in watercolor in the Adirondacks and in Maine, employing the medium for figure and genre studies as well as landscape. Through the 1870s he pursued watercolor, but garnered only a mixed reception for his efforts from the art critics of the day.
Homer achieved his critical breakthrough as a watercolor artist in the reviews he received for his contribution of 23 works to the February 1879 exhibition of the American Water Color Society. These works were the fruit of his efforts of the summer of 1878, when he traveled with his brushes and paints to Houghton Farm, the summer retreat of his longtime family friend and his brother’s employer, Valentine Lawson. The property was an easy trip from New York City, in Mountainville, New York, near Storm King Mountain on the southern edge of the Hudson Highlands.
Flush with success, Homer continued his theme of rural pursuits and pleasures in his work of the summer of 1879. Homer’s interest in depicting children engaged in farm activities during this period is widely understood as a reaction against the deadly national divisions of the 1860s, offering both the artist and his patrons a source of respite with a healing vision of an idealized, archetypal American rural way of life.
After 1879, Homer never wavered in his dedication to watercolor as a medium for the highest artistic achievement. In 1880, he returned to Gloucester and created a group of watercolors characterized by slashes of brilliant color, which replace line as a means of defining shape.
Homer’s next major watercolor series was the result of his nearly two-year stay in Cullercoats, England. Here, in stark contrast, Homer worked with a subdued palette and strongly modeled figures, expressing the sober life of a fishing village and its people with precision. Mrs. Schuyler (Mariana Griswold) Van Rensselaer described these in The Century in 1883 as “the most complete and beautiful thing he has yet produced. They are ... pictures in the truest sense, and not mere studies or sketches, like most of his earlier aquarelles...." Throughout his remaining career, Homer’s watercolors remain a living testimony to the beauty he found wherever he set his artist’s eye.