Throughout his long career, Winslow Homer made pictures that featured women, curious light effects, or, most famously, especially as he grew older, the Atlantic Ocean. On occasion he combined these interests. In the last of his works to show all three motifs, A Light on the Sea, Homer created one of his most enigmatic paintings.
Homer presents an apparently simple scene. A woman walks along a rocky shoreline, a fishing net with buoys slung over her shoulder. Light gleams on the water behind her while a gull glides in the air above to the right. Details can be identified. The site is demonstrably Prout's Neck, Maine, where Homer had made his home since 1884, looking southward across Saco Bay; the rocks are ones he often fished from. The model was a local woman named Ida Meserve Harding, who had earlier posed for him. Yet such factual details do little to elucidate the picture.
There is a mystery. Something has caught the woman's attention, causing her to stop midstride and look back over her shoulder – perhaps a sound raised by whatever has caused the gull to rise from its roost and soar away. Suggesting that the viewer, too, follow her glance, Homer makes the picture's narrative focus on a point just beyond the right edge of the scene.
There is another source of disquiet in the work. What is the weather? What is the time of day? Some early writers thought the picture showed a "cold but keen white wintery sunlight." For others, it was "a beautiful picture of the sea at night." Viewers today are no less divided. Homer often declared that he was true to his observations: "When I have selected the thing carefully, I paint it exactly as it appears." Yet diametrically opposed readings of Homer's paintings over the years reveal the elusiveness of his truths, a seemingly intended ambiguity that has kept them vital and brings to the fore the viewer's share of a painting's meaning.
lower right: Homer 1897
Consigned by artist in 1904 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold February 1907 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Second Annual Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1897-1898, no. 117.
- Loaned Paintings by American Artists, Union League Club, New York, January 1898, no. 1.
- M. Knoedler & Co, New York, April-May 1898.
- Century Association, New York, 4 March 1905.
- Winter Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1906-1907, no. 84.
- First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1907, no. 68.
- Twelfth Annual Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1908, no. 143.
- Exhibition of American Classics of the Nineteenth Century, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Baltimore Museum of Art; Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, 1957-1958, no. 16.
- Winslow Homer, National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1958-1959, no. 63 (shown only in Washington and Boston).
- Loan Exhibition. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art: A Benefit Exhibition in Honor of the Gallery's Centenary, Wildenstein, New York, 1959, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, no catalogue.
- Winslow Homer, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Art Institute of Chicago, 1973-1974, no. 64.
- En Ny Värld: Amerikanskt landskapsmåleri 1830-1900 [New World: American Landscape Painting], National Museum, Stockholm; Gothenburg Art Museum, 1986-1987, no. 44.
- Reckoning with Winslow Homer: His Late Paintings and Their Influence, Cleveland Museum of Art; Columbus Museum of Art; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1990-1991, unnumbered catalogue.
- The Forty-fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907–1998, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 17 July - 29 September 1998, unnumbered catalogue.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no.59.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine, Portland Museum of Art, Maine, 2012, unnumbered catalogue.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: repro. 46, 47.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959: 54, repro.
- Simpson, Marc. "Winslow Homer, A Light on the Sea." In Corcoran Gallery of Art : American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 34, 37, 180-181, 274-275, repro.