Memoranda of Travel

Attracted by the warm weather, excellent fishing, and picturesque settings, Homer wintered in the tropics numerous times between 1884 and 1905. His sojourns took him to the Bahamas, Cuba, Bermuda, and various locations in Florida. In these locales, Homer embraced the artistic challenges posed by crystal clear light, transparent seas, humid air, vividly colored vegetation, exotic marine life, dark-skinned populations, and dramatic weather effects.

In December 1884, Homer and his father set off for the Caribbean for the first time, traveling to Nassau, the largest city of the Bahamas, by steamship from New York. Over a two-month period, the artist painted prolifically in watercolor, characteristically distancing himself from tourists and popular sites. As he had done in Cullercoats and would do in the Adirondacks, he sought out the local population, preferring to depict truthful scenes of daily life. The Water Fan depicts a young man intently searching for coral with a “water glass” or “sponge glass,” a device used to stabilize the surface of moving water in order to improve visibility. Homer may have been attracted to the subject because it drew attention to the ocean’s transparency and constantly moving surface, qualities he found especially intriguing in the Bahamas. It was in conjunction with this subject matter—observed and painted on the spot in blinding white sunlight—that Homer developed his Caribbean watercolor style, painting transparent washes in free and confident brushstrokes and allowing the white of the paper to show through to great effect.

In After the Hurricane, Bahamas Homer depicts a luckless man washed up on the beach, surrounded by fragments of his shattered craft. The splintered boat testifies to the severity of the hurricane, even as black clouds recede into the distance and sunlight begins to glimmer. Frothy whitecaps and a surprising stroke of emerald green in the middle distance suggest an ocean that is gradually calming itself. Homer used thin washes and fluid brushstrokes to render the waves, setting up a contrast to dry land, where he employed thickly applied opaque red and yellow pigments for the seaweed tossed upon the sand. Initially, Homer had painted the man’s arm bent at the elbow, cradling his head in a more lifelike way. Preferring to leave his physical condition ambiguous, he scraped away paint in the area of the elbow and foreshortened the arm.

Later, Homer traveled to Tampa and Key West (winter 1885–86); Enterprise, Florida (February 1890); the Bahamas (winter 1898–99); Bermuda (winter 1899–1900); and finally the fishing village of Homosassa, Florida (January 1904). Throughout these trips, the artist simultaneously indulged his love of fishing and his engagement with watercolor. Each change of scene offered fresh subject matter and yet another opportunity to push the flexible medium in new directions as he applied his increasingly sophisticated understanding of color and light to a new set of atmospheric conditions.

Winslow Homer. The Water Fan, 1898/99. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

Winslow Homer. After the Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.