The Sick Chicken, 1874, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
Homer had been working as an artist for nearly two decades when, in the words of one contemporary critic, he took "a sudden and desperate plunge into watercolor painting." Long the domain of amateur painters, watercolors had gained professional respectability in 1866 with the formation of the American Water Color Society. Homer recognized their potential for profit—for he could produce and sell them quickly—but he also liked the way watercolor allowed him to experiment more easily than oil.
He created his first series in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1873, and by the time he painted his last watercolor, in 1905, he had become the unrivaled master of the medium in America.
Some critics found fault in Homer's early watercolors for their apparent lack of finish and their commonplace subject matter. Yet Homer valued them from the start. He priced The Sick Chicken, a delicate work that demonstrates his early technique of filling in outlined forms with washes of color, at the steep price of one hundred dollars.