Winslow Homer Watercolors: A Survey of Themes and Styles
In 1881 Winslow Homer began a series of watercolors based on life in the seaside fishing village of Cullercoats, England, where he stayed for almost two years. Unlike Homer’s earlier watercolors, the Cullercoats works have a timeless quality that was earlier characteristic only of his oil paintings.
Although large steam trawlers had begun to replace smaller boats as fishing craft in Cullercoats, Homer preferred to focus on the old ways. In Mending the Nets, he conveys the idea of skills acquired through generations of families at work. Mending, along with dividing the catch and distributing the fish at market, occupied the fisherwomens’ time for most of the day.
The composition suggests Homer’s familiarity with classical sculpture. The overlapping figures of the women create a compact group in a relatively shallow space, recalling relief sculpture such as the Parthenon friezes that Homer may have seen at the British Museum. The neutral background silhouettes the two figures starkly, emphasizing their strong sculptural quality. In this way, Homer presents these women at their daily tasks as timeless archetypes, imbued with a sober and noble simplicity.
There is a thematic trend in Homer’s deer hunting series; his subjects shift over time from the start of the hunt to the kill. In A Good Shot, Adirondacks, we are in the presence of death. Removed spatially and emotionally from the hunter, we focus on the prey. Homer’s only watercolor to show a deer being killed, this work captures the moment the stag is shot, just as he climbs to the top of a rock in a river of rushing water. On the right are the silhouettes of two hounds running in the direction of the deer. To the left, a puff of white smoke from the hunter’s just-fired rifle wafts through the air.
In 1889 Homer began a series of watercolors on deer hunting in the wilderness of the Adirondacks. One method, called hounding, involved using dogs to track and chase the deer. The guide or hunter would enter the forest with a leash of hounds attached to his belt, and release one dog at a time, allowing it to run in ever-widening circles in search of a deer trail. When pursued the deer instinctively takes to water, where the dogs cannot follow the scent. The hunter waited in a boat and would overtake the deer once it had entered the water, then shoot or club the animal.
Hounding was a controversial practice. Still-hunting, where the hunter tracked the deer through the woods without the benefit of dogs, was considered more sportsmanlike. However, Homer's hunters are not wealthy sportsmen, casually shooting for entertainment, but local guides hunting for food and livelihood. On the Trail shows a young woodsman at the start of the hunt, holding two lively dogs, their tails twitching in anticipation.
Another watercolor in Homer’s series on hounding, Sketch for “Hound and Hunter” shows a young hunter lying in a guideboat, tightly holding a noose in one hand and a dead deer in the other. His attention is centered on the dog swimming toward him. After having killed the deer, the boy’s first task is to secure it and then either haul it into the boat or tow it ashore. At the same time, the dog must be lifted into the boat. However, it is not certain that Homer's subject will be able to accomplish either task on his own.
The self-assurance of man in relation to nature that characterizes many of Homer’s watercolors from this period is notably absent from this work. Instead, the youth of the hunter coupled with the instability of his position in the boat communicate uncertainty and, in a larger sense, represent the precarious outlook of those who have little knowledge and respect for nature.
After not working for more than a year, Homer traveled to Florida in December 1903. The watercolors he executed on this trip turned out to be his final series. Key West, Hauling Anchor is part of the Key West series, which focused exclusively on the schooners in the harbor. The white hulled boats floating on blue water continue a motif used earlier in the Bahamas.
As with the Bahamas series, Homer ignored all but the essentials and concentrated on capturing the effects of light and color. The simplified color scheme of white hull and sails, red-shirted crew, and gray-blue sea and sky produce a scene of sunlit clarity. A sense of continuous movement is created by cropping the top of the masts and furled sail. The Key West watercolors are among the artist’s most luminous and vibrant works.