More Skillful, More Refined, More Delicate
Homer set sail for England on the Cunard liner SS Parthia on March 15, 1881. He arrived in Liverpool, continued to London, then traveled north. By the summer of 1881, the artist had made his way to Cullercoats, a small fishing village on the northeast coast of England, not far from the Scottish border. There he rented a cottage with a walled garden and a studio overlooking the harbor.
Homer’s 20-month sojourn in England in 1881/82 marked a turning point in his work and career. His trip was the logical culmination of a long period of studying both watercolor practice and color theory. By 1880 his explorations in both disciplines led him to study the great English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, the most prominent watercolorist of the day. In order to fully appreciate Turner’s skill, Homer traveled to London where he could view them the paintings firsthand.
While in England, Homer visited the British Museum and studied the drawings of Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and Raphael. He transformed his drawing style from simple, utilitarian sketches to a more graceful brand of draftsmanship. This change was in the service of improving his color; fine, correct drawing was thought to be necessary to naturalistic color. In Fishing off Scarborough, two young women and two fishermen slice through coastal waters in a coble.Carefully rendered in graphite, the figures and fishing boat stand in contrast to Homer’s spontaneous, abstract representation of clouds, mist, and spray, applied in opaque white watercolor. Homer used his pencil to suggest atmospheric effects such as the smoke rising from the steamship in the right background.
He also added more pigments to his palette in order to capture the colors of his new environment. Homer worked almost exclusively in watercolor in England, but the pictures that he made were significantly more profound and sophisticated than his earlier efforts—larger in size, more complete in finish, and subtler in color and drawing.
Winslow Homer. Winslow Homer. The Watcher, Tynemouth, 1882. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Winslow Homer. Fishing off Scarborough, 1882. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.