The Art Institute of Chicago is fortunate to house among its collections of American Art twenty-five watercolors and three monochrome drawings by Winslow Homer. Between 2005 and 2007, curators, researchers, conservators and conservation scientists at the Art Institute of Chicago collaborated on an in-depth study of these works using a variety of new analytical technologies. Looking closely at this corpus of works, and at watercolors on loan to the museum by the Terra Foundation for American Art and local private collections, this team set out to learn about Homer’s use of his watercolor materials in order to better understand his artistic intentions, his interest in optics and color theory, and his lifelong study of the effects of light in nature.
This research project has yielded considerable new information about the artist’s pigments and the way the appearance of his colors has altered over time in response to light and other environmental conditions. In turn, this data illuminated Homer’s original intentions and, in a number of cases, even encouraged the re-assessment of the subject matter of his watercolors. Several digital simulations of faded works were created in order to provide a sense of how shifts in color can affect the meaning of an image. Close study of Homer’s watercolors also yielded new information about other aspects of his watercolor practice, from the way he used graphite to establish key forms to his aggressive use of subtractive techniques to remove and manipulate color. Homer has long been admired as a watercolorist capable of painting quickly and spontaneously to record the most immediate and ephemeral sensations. Yet, as this study shows, his watercolor practice was also full of experimentation, study, and reworking. While part of his genius was the ability to make his watercolors look effortless, they are often the result of complex and deliberate artistic planning.