Fresh Air and Pure Impressions
Winslow Homer began his career as a serious watercolorist abruptly in the summer of 1873. In late June or early July, the artist arrived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and proceeded over the next two months to paint some 30 works, including Three Boys on the Shore. Although he had used watercolor washes in the past to tint drawings and indicate areas of shadow in his designs for wood engravings, the Gloucester pictures represent his first sustained use of the medium to create independent works of art.
Remaining true to his self-taught, trial-and-error methodology, Homer began experimenting in watercolor. He had few preconceived notions of how watercolor should be used and often painted quickly in the open air, referring to his watercolors as sketches. At other times, he developed watercolors from careful pencil studies. He taught himself by reading treatises on the medium—even his first Gloucester pictures show a familiarity with the wide range of techniques that were advocated by handbooks, largely derived from English watercolor practice.
Homer’s growing interest in color theory helps to explain his precipitant move to watercolor, which allowed him to dilute, juxtapose, layer, mix, and otherwise manipulate pigments more quickly and easily than oil permitted. Over the next eight years, he became increasingly fascinated with the possibilities of watercolor, using summer trips to concentrate on exploring a single theme and locale.
Homer was elected to membership in the American Society of Painters in Water Colors in 1876. Over the next few years, perhaps in response to his new professional status as well as to the critics’ complaints about his “hastily and rawly” painted watercolor sketches, Homer shifted to painting larger, highly finished depictions of subjects that were, for the first time, overtly cosmopolitan. Then, in the summer of 1880, he returned to Gloucester and painted powerful, passionate color studies of the harbor at sunset. He also revisited the theme of boys watching the harbor and playing along the shore. In Two Boys Watching Schooners, he juxtaposed the figures and shore (rendered in warm tones) with the harbor, sky, and schooner (painted in cool blue), emphasizing the psychological isolation of those who waited—sometimes hopefully, sometimes anxiously—for the return of fishing fleets.
Technical variety is one element of Homer’s watercolor practice that was established early and would endure throughout his career. He recognized watercolor as a liberating medium that allowed versatile results, and he continued to exploit its varied nature as he shifted from one painting campaign to another.
Winslow Homer. Two Boys Watching Schooners, 1880. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.