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Winslow Homer: American Scenes

June 20 - December 7, 2008


Winslow Homer: American Scenes, an installation that spans the breadth of Winslow Homer's career -- from an early drawing he made at age 13, to his last seascape at age 73 -- opened June 20, 2008 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), in conjunction with the opening of the Museum's new State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance. Winslow Homer: American Scenes celebrates the artistry of the great American master, Winslow Homer (1836-1910), in an installation that highlights approximately 70 of his iconic images, including 11 paintings, five watercolors, and more than 40 prints and drawings selected from the Museum's extensive collection. Included are familiar masterpieces, such as Boys in a Pasture (1874), Long Branch, New Jersey (1869), and The Fog Warning, Halibut Fishing (1885), as well as the first showing at the MFA of his watercolor Woman Standing by a Gate, Bahamas (1885), acquired by the Museum in 2003. The installation in the Lee Gallery, on view through December 7, is the MFA's largest since it mounted the exhibition Winslow Homer in 1996. (right: Winslow Homer, American, 1836-1910, Boys in a Pasture, 1874, Oil on canvas. The Hayden Collection-Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 1953. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The installation begins with the artist's early drawing, Rocket Ship (1849-50), which Homer began in 1849 at the age of 13 when his father, Charles Savage Homer, left his Massachusetts home to prospect for gold out west. Rocket Ship is Homer's interpretation of a Currier & Ives lithograph that features a miner riding a rocket toward California's gold fields. The MFA installation continues with a survey of Homer's Civil War illustrations; his Parisian-influenced works; depictions of rural life; seascapes in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Prout's Neck, Maine; and images of England, Florida, and the Caribbean. It ends with Driftwood (1909), Homer's last seascape and his final completed work, a majestic homage to the stormy coast of Prout's Neck, where he spent the last 27 years of his life.

A native of Boston, Homer was born in 1836 and moved with his family as a young boy to Cambridge, then later to Belmont, Massachusetts. When it became apparent that his talents were more artistic than academic, Homer apprenticed with a commercial lithographer, John H. Bufford, in Boston. While there, he designed sheet music covers for popular songs of the day, creating lithographs for Katy Darling (1855) and The Wreath (1856), which showed his burgeoning artistic potential. Two years later, Homer struck out on his own as a freelance illustrator, working for Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly, among other publications. The artist's association with Harper's continued when he moved to New York City in 1859 as a freelancer, covering Abraham Lincoln's inauguration for the illustrated journal in 1861. Later that year, Homer was assigned by Harper's to chronicle Union troops in Virginia as a "special artist" at the front during the Civil War. (left: Winslow Homer, American, 1836-1910, The Lookout -"All's Well", 1896, Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Warren Collection-William Wilkins Warren Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

From this unique vantage point, Homer created popular color lithographs of army camp life for the magazine, and began to paint in oils. The two months he spent in 1862 during the Siege of Yorktown marked the beginning of a prolific period of artistry based upon his wartime experiences, such as the lithograph Campaign Sketches: The Letter for Home (1863) and the painting Playing Old Soldier (1863). Homer also created color illustrations for Louis Prang Company which were used to produce a series of Civil War collectors' cards, Life in Camp, First Series (1864) and Life in Camp, Second Series (1864), in which he included his self-portrait. Also of note is that Homer was one of the first American artists to give serious attention to African-Americans during the war, as can be seen in his wood engraving, A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac (1861), and the chromolithograph, The Bright Side, drawn by Homer in 1889, which is included in the installation. It is based on his acclaimed Civil War-era painting of the same name that appeared at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, attended by Homer.

During his 10-month sojourn in Paris, Homer became familiar with avant-garde works, especially the French landscape paintings of the Barbizon school, and the early Impressionists. Their treatment of light and the artist's interest in scenes of popular leisure and urban entertainment can be seen in a variety of his images, including Long Branch, New Jersey (1869), a sun-filled vision of a popular seaside resort in New Jersey, and the wood engraving A Parisian Ball-Dancing at the Mabille, Paris (1867). Another view of the seashore, albeit a more naturalistic one, is the painting Rocky Coast and Gulls (1869), a depiction of a Manchester, Massachusetts, beach populated only by sea gulls and horseshoe crabs.

In the 1870s, the artist created drawings, wood engravings, watercolors, and paintings that celebrated rural life in works such as Twilight at Leeds, New York (1876), and a variety of scenes based on travels throughout the Adirondacks, Gloucester, and Prout's Neck. After the devastation of war, Homer focused for a time on optimistic pictures of young people enjoying themselves outdoors, which harkened back to simpler, more innocent days. These include the wood engraving Snap the Whip! (1873), the paintings The Dinner Horn (about 1870) and Enchanted (1874, Private Collection), and the perennial favorite, Boys in a Pasture (1874). (right: Winslow Homer, American, 1836-1910, The Fog Warning, 1885, Conservation status: After treatment, Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Otis Norcross Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

From rural life to seascapes, Winslow Homer: American Scenes also highlights the period Homer spent in Gloucester. There he lived in solitude on Ten Pound Island in the summer of 1880, producing more than 100 watercolors and drawings including Girl Seated (1880), and he continued to find inspiration in Gloucester during the ensuing years, as seen in Gloucester, Mackerel Fleet at Sunset (1884), part of a group of paintings he did for the interior of his brother's boat, and The Fog Warning, Halibut Fishing (1885). (right: Winslow Homer, American, 1836-1910,

For the last 27 years of his life, Homer was based at his family's compound on Prout's Neck, where he continued to produce numerous seascapes, including the painting The Lookout-"All's Well" (1896), and etchings of The Life Line (1884) and Eight Bells (1887), based on his oil paintings of the same name. Homer also took a trip to Cullercoats, a fishing village in England, as reflected in the etching, Mending the Nets (1888), and tempered the harsh New England winters with visits to Cuba, the Bahamas, and Florida. The watercolors Street Corner, Santiago de Cuba (1885), Woman Standing by a Gate, Bahamas (1885), and Palm Trees, Florida (1904) depict his visits to sunnier climes.

Winslow Homer: American Scenes concludes with his dramatic masterpiece, Driftwood (1909), the artist's last work, a seascape completed the year before he died. The installation also features Homer's illustrations for the anthology, Winter Poems (1871) and his silhouettes for James Russell Lowell's 1874 book, The Courtin'. [The latter are evocative of another MFA work, Kara Walker's The Rich Soil Down There (2002), exhibited on the second floor of the West Wing, a tableau that uses silhouetted figures to provide a visual commentary on unsettling relationships caused by racial and gender stereotypes.]

"Winslow Homer: American Scenes offers visitors a rare and intimate glimpse of the artist's working method in all media throughout his career and draws upon the rich collections of his work held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston," said Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas department at the MFA, who curated the installation with the assistance of Elizabeth Mitchell, assistant curator in the Prints and Drawings department.

Joining Winslow Homer: American Scenes are two additional installations that also are on display in celebration of the State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance: Preserving History, Making History: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, an exploration of the MFA's history from its founding in 1870 to the present, with a look toward the future (on view through September 22); and Great Company: Portraits by European Masters, a selection of renowned portraiture from the Museum's collection (on view through January 5, 2009).

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles and essays:

From TFAO's Topics in American Representational Art:


Also enjoy online multimedia:

a streaming slide show titled Winslow Homer's Right and Left from the National Gallery of Art, which is a narrated show interpreting one painting. Narration is by Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., senior curator of American and British paintings. A transcript is included in the presentation.

from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts the online audio segment Art on the Air, which features two-minute radio artist and curator interviews narrated by Daphne Maxwell Reid produced by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and New Millennium Studios, and directed by Ruth Twiggs and Anne Barriault, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The broadcasts focus on works of art and artists, materials, and techniques. Sample selections from 2004 include Winslow Homer. (right: Art on the Air graphic courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

from High Museum of Art partnering with the Forum Network for Winslow Homer's Watercolors: Markers in a Life Journey, (52 minutes) a lecture by Elizabeth Johns, professor emerita, art history, UPenn. in which Dr. Johns discusses the relationship of Homer's watercolors and some of his oils to his life's journey. (Lecture contributed by WABE/AFN) [May 11, 2006]

from an online course by Dr. Liana Cheney of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell titled "Art History and Film," the video Winslow Homer: An American Original, a 49 minute 1999 HBO Artists' Specials series program directed by Graeme Lynch and produced by Devine Entertainment.

from WTTW11, which is producing a series of original "Artbeat" segments, a regular feature on its nightly newsmagazine Chicago Tonight, to help audiences learn about and connect to the variety of activities that are part of American Art American City, the clip "Winslow Homer 06:34 2/14/08." For more than 50 years, WTTW11 has served the Chicago community and beyond as the nation's most watched public television station, earning a reputation for providing outstanding programming in many areas, including the arts. (text courtesy Terra Foundation for American Art). Recent programs include:


and other online resources:


TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Atlantic Coast of Winslow Homer, The Introduces painter Winslow Homer (1836--1910) and shows his work featuring scenes along the Atlantic Ocean. 35-minute video Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center. The Museum contains a comprehensive lending library including many videos.
Winslow Homer: An American Original is a 49 minute 1999 HBO Artists' Specials series program directed by Graeme Lynch and produced by Devine Entertainment. The artist Winslow Homer has become famous for his illustrations of battle scenes during the Civil War, but he feels disenchanted with what he has experienced and withdraws to a quiet farm. There he meets a pair of teenagers whose lives have been shaken by the war. Together, Homer and the kids learn from each other and move forward with life.

Winslow Homer: Society and Solitude is a 2007 full-length documentary by filmmaker Steven John Ross, professor of communication, University of Memphis. Excerpts from an April 6, 2007 press release from Colby-Sawyer College follow:

Ross, a professor at the University of Memphis, worked on the Homer documentary for six years. He is best known for his award-winning PBS documentaries, "Oh Freedom After While!" (2000),"Black Diamonds, Blues City" (1996) and "At The River I Stand," (1993), and the literary adaptations "A Game of Catch" (1990) and "The Old Forest" (1984).
Don Coonley, professor of humanities and communication studies at Colby-Sawyer College, is one of the film's co-producers and sound recorders. Coonley is also the on-screen and voice-over actor representing Homer in the re-creation sequences filmed at the artist's studio on Prout's Neck, Maine. Coonley and Ross have collaborated on each other's film projects over the last 28 years.
"Winslow Homer: Society and Solitude" exists in two forms: as a feature length documentary (one hour and 49 minutes long); and as two separate, 55-minute films, the first depicting Homer's life and work up to 1880, and the second dealing with the last three decades of his life and work.
The new film depicts more than 180 Homer paintings, watercolors, etchings and illustrations, which were filmed in the Homer family archives and museums such as The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The National Gallery of Art, The Portland Museum of Art and The Fogg Museum at Harvard University. Re-creations of Homer in Maine were shot with the cooperation of his descendants at his cliff-side studio in Prout's Neck. Other locations captured by 16mm cameras for this project include Gloucester, Mass., and The North Woods Club in The Adirondack Mountains.
This documentary offers multiple perspectives on the artist through interviews with artists and major Homer scholars. Noted scholars and artists who appear in the film include Frank Kelly, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Judith Walsh, Sarah Burns, Linda Docherty, Elizabeth Johns, Gary Gallagher, Ted Stebbins, Marc Simpson, David Tatham, Peter Wood, Tim Rollins, David Driskell, Sue Welsh Reed, Carol Troyen, Roy Perkinson and Patricia Junker. Other scholars who served as consultants include John Wilmerding, Bruce Robertson, Katherine Woltz, Margi Conrads, Henry Adams, and Nancy Mowll Mathews.
Winslow Homer: The Nature of the Artist  is a 29 minute 1986 video directed by Steve York from the National Gallery of Art Series. The art of Winslow Homer is examined in this profile of the American artist, from his early illustrations of the Civil War and his picturesque scenes of the country and shore, to the powerful images of nature that characterize his mature and late work. Commentary by the American art historian John Wilmerding provides a guide to Homer's artistic progress and to his achievements, particularly his transformation of the watercolor medium from the purely descriptive into a highly expressive vehicle.
TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format


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