A Special Communion with Nature
Since Homer’s day, the vast Adirondacks wilderness in northern New York state has offered artists a limitless selection of natural wonders: high mountain peaks, old forests, thousands of lakes, ponds, rapids, waterfalls, and the mighty Hudson River. For Homer, the region also provided the things he cherished and needed most: privacy, plentiful subject matter, the chance to focus intently on his work, and, of course, excellent fishing. The artist made over 20 visits to the Adirondacks Mountains between 1870 and 1910. His usual destination was the North Woods Club, a rustic, private retreat situated on nearly five thousand acres. His artistic response to this wilderness area was perhaps more deeply felt and enduring than to any other single environment.
Watercolor was particularly suited to rustic exploration, and the artist painted more than one hundred Adirondacks subjects in the medium. The themes of these works reflect his personal and artistic interests: fishing, hunting, weather, sunrise and sunset, and light on water. These works also demonstrate his keen awareness of contemporary debates over the depletion of America’s natural resources without taking an overt or didactic stand.
For example, white pine had been dangerously deforested in this period, and the white-tailed deer population was dwindling due to increased hunting by urban tourists. In North Woods Club, Adirondacks, Homer drew the pine trees and deer carefully in pencil before adding watercolor, ensuring that the distinctive characteristics of both threatened species would be clearly identifiable. Homer combined the themes of fishing and logging in The Rapids, Hudson River, Adirondacks. At first glance, this scene is peaceful and intimate, a virtuoso study of the movement of the river’s surface over partially submerged rocks. It is only as the eye travels to the dense woods and haphazardly strewn, clean-cut logs along the far bank that the viewer becomes aware of the presence of man. Even subtler is the leaping fish at river’s edge, where Homer used his knife blade to sketch the serpentine motion of a fishing line in mid-cast.
In these watercolors, Homer also pursued his lifelong preference for working people. He found the guides of the Adirondacks to be interesting subjects and companions, admiring their rustic authenticity and knowledge of the wilderness. He also recognized their appeal to his urban audiences. Through the writings and photographs of visitors to the region some of these men had achieved near-mythical status.
Homer and his brother, both experienced fishermen, occasionally sought an alternative to the Adirondacks. The Canadian wilderness offered untouched forests and a reputation for the best fishing in North America. In Quebec, Homer discovered the dramatic headwaters of the Saguenay River and the excellent fishing at Roberval on Lake St. John. The artist returned in 1895, 1897, and 1902 to fish and create a new body of watercolor work for the art market.
Winslow Homer. North Woods Club, Adirondacks (The Interrupted Tête-a-tête), 1892. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Winslow Homer. The Rapids, Hudson River, Adirondacks, 1894. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.