Farnsworth Art Museum

Rockland, Maine

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Farnsworth Art Museum Acquires Winslow Homer Watercolor, "Seven Boys in a Dory"


The Winslow Homer Watercolor, "Seven Boys in a Dory," 1873, was recently acquired by the Farnsworth Art Museum through the generous gift of an anonymous donor. The painting was formerly in the collection of the Norman Woolworth family, noted collectors of American art and was included in the major Homer exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art in 1995.

The painting (see left) is one of a series of vignettes of children, primarily young boys playing along the shore, that Homer painted in and around Gloucester, Massachusetts, during his first extended stay there during the summer of 1873. It becomes the forth Homer watercolor in the museum's permanent collection, joining "Pulling the Dory" and "New England Coast-Sailing Ships in Harbor," both from the artist's second major Gloucester period in 1880. The fourth watercolor, "A Girl in a Punt," dates from the same year, 1880, but is a view off the Connecticut shore where Homer briefly worked before arriving in Gloucester.

"Seven Boys in a Dory" represents one of Homer's earliest experiments with the medium of watercolor, which he is known to have first tried seriously during this visit. Homer scholar, D. Scott Atkinson said that Homer " ... immediately grasped its color potential: his application of pigments in full strength instead of muted, transparent washes is one of the most prevalent characteristics of this early group." The painting shows seven young boys sitting in a pale-green dory on a becalmed sea in various attitudes of quiet relaxation. Their heads are turned to watch a schooner sailing by on the horizon. The only suggestion of activity is the bent head and reaching arms of the boy at the oars as he pulls the dory through the water. In a design device not atypical of Homer, the dory, the focus of the composition, is truncated, the stern and its three young occupants are only partially revealed. The paint is applied loosely and confidently, and the pencil lines from the under drawing are clearly evident. The noted Homer scholar, Nicolai Cikovsky maintains that Homer showed an immediate affinity for the medium of watercolor. He states that these early works were never "merely tentative" and that he had the same "untutored command of watercolor that he showed ten years earlier when he began to paint in oil."

From the beginning, Homer's unrestrained, almost impressionistic style in watercolor was somewhat at odds with the high degree of finish that was usual and expected from paintings of the period. When Homer exhibited a selection of these early watercolors for the first time in the "Eighth Water Color Society Exhibition" in New York in 1875, critics were attracted by the vigor, freshness and spontaneity of the paintings, but perplexed by their lack of finish. One critic noted that " ... Mr. Homer's style is wonderfully vigorous and original; with a few dashes of the brush he suggests a picture, but a mere suggestion only, and it is a mistaken eccentricity which prevents its finish." Another said, "It is impossible for Mr. Homer to finish anything, but notwithstanding this apparent fault his works have a value for force which is not excelled by any of his contemporaries."

This important early watercolor is one of a group that marks a milestone in Homer's career. Up until 1975, he had been obliged to work as an illustrator for publications like "Harpers Monthly Magazine" and "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper" to make a decent living. However, from this time on, he was able to rely on the sale of watercolors to replace this income. They were immediately popular and steady sales of these paintings enabled him to quit the world of illustration to concentrate solely on his art. Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. observed that watercolor "was a medium he would use with unrivaled brilliance for the rest of his life, and of which he would become the greatest and most influential master in American art."

Museum Director Chris Crosman notes: "Homer watercolors of this period and quality are extraordinarily rare and this particular work is a major addition to the permanent collection. We are deeply grateful to the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, for returning this important work to a public collection where it will be enjoyed by generations of visitors to the Farnsworth Museum." The Homer watercolor is currently on view in the Rothschild Gallery at the Farnsworth Art Museum.

In addition to the Homer watercolor, the museum has recently acquired a number of other works for the collection. A late 18th-century watercolor of George Washington by James Peale, thought to be the last portrait from life of Washington, was donated by Mr. and Mrs. W. Burton Salisbury, Jr. The painting will be on view in coming months, pending minor conservation treatment. An "artist book" by noted contemporary artist Larry Rivers is based on the early American print of the Boston Massacre. The portfolio, which includes various printmaking and collage techniques, is a gift of Mr. Robert Anthoine. Two abstract paintings on paper by Portland-based artist William Manning were donated by Ms. Joan Burns and join a growing collection of works by the artist already in the collection. The museum also received a group of approximately 250 vintage photographs by one-time Rockland photographer Bradbury Prescott, a member of the Rockland Camera Club for much of his career until retiring to New Hampshire. Among other significant gifts that are particularly meaningful to local residents, the museum is pleased to acquire "Sea Goddess" by longtime Lincolnville, Maine, sculptor Abbott Pattison. The bronze sculpture is a gift of the Pattison family and joins several other works by Pattison already in the collection.

See other RLM articles on Homer including:

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/23/10

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