The Water Fan

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Winslow Homer
American, 1836-1910

The Water Fan, 1898/99

Watercolor, with blotting and touches of scraping, over graphite, on thick, rough twill-textured, ivory wove paper
374 x 534 mm
Gift of Dorothy A., John A., Jr., and Christopher Holabird in memory of William and Mary Holabird, 1972.190

The Water Fan depicts a young black man intently searching for coral using a glass-bottomed bucket. Referred to as a “water glass” or “sponge glass,” this device was used to stabilize the surface of moving water in order to improve visibility. Homer may have been attracted to the subject because it draws attention to the constantly moving surface of the water as well as its transparency, aspects of the sea that especially intrigued him in the Bahamas. Like The Sponge Diver (1898/99; MFA Boston), this work originally had more visible red washes in the water, hinting at the pink coral beneath the surface. While these areas have faded, the fluid strokes of darker blue over layers of transparent turquoise are effective in suggesting the play of light, both direct and reflected, over water.

Homer depicted light shimmering on the ocean using watercolor paper with a heavy twill texture in The Water Fan. The diagonal pattern of the sheet, which runs from top right to lower left, was imparted during manufacture by the papermaker’s woven wire screen that supported the paper pulp during sheet formation. The opposite side is relatively smooth. A truncated watermark reading “J WHAT,” for J Whatman, the manufacturer, reads from the textured side, indicating the side intended for painting.