WINSLOW HOMER was a plain American, a cantankerous Yankee opposed to
cosmopolitan refinements, a native artist entitled to a seat among the master
painters of the sea. There is nothing sensational in his pictures-he never
strayed from the line of direct experience into the realm of cryptic suggestion
-and there is nothing sensational in his life.
Born in Boston, self-instructed
in the rudiments of drawing, he took the hard road to fame, serving a long
apprenticeship in lithography, and working, during the Civil War, as a maga
zine illustrator assigned to distract the public by sketches of intimate scenes
from the extramilitary life of soldiers. Against his puritanic conscience, he
subjected himself to a year in Paris where he was more alien than a New
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He attended no schools, painted little, refused to talk
about art, and dreamed of the waves hammering against the Atlantic coastline.
On his return to America, he gained considerable notice as a delineator of
healthy, bucolic life, idealizing his women into strapping, sweet-faced heroines.
But all that is memorable in his work was painted after his forty-fifth year.
On a holiday among the fishermen of the British seacoast, Homer saw the
light, and thereafter was exclusively a painter of marines. In 1884″ he retired
to Maine, built himself a cottage on a wild headland, and save for an occa
sional visit to the islands in the Gulf Stream, lived alone in his rockbound
Awards came in abundance; the French, in 1900, praised him as the
only generic American; and he sold everything he painted-but he was in
different to material honors, and acquired a local reputation as a formidable
No more than Turner was the Yankee solitary an eccentric: he loved the sea
-not the fabulous sea of the old Turner-but the terrifying agent of destruc
tion, the friend and enemy of man, the realistic multiform sea, inconstant and
Year in and year out, he studied the waves, waiting month after
month for watery conformations he had visualized alone in his workshop. With
his blunt notions of art, he said that “he painted only what he saw,” meaning
that he painted only from sustained observation.
His imagination never deserted him, and unfailingly he painted the sea in conjunction with human
trials; more often than not, when storms were raging, but again, as in The
H erring Net, in calmer moods to show the activities of man against the massive
simplicity of the waves.