Winslow Homer, painter

On June 7, 1871, the New York Evening Post announced that “Winslow Homer will spend the summer among the Catskills.” One of the nation’s prominent artists of his day, known primarily for his illustration work for Harpers Magazine that had begun with work submitted from the battlefronts of the Civil War, Homer was an established Greenwich Village presence who would make notable sketching visits to dramatic terrains for subject matter. Before the Catskills, he’d painted in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, along the New Jersey coast, and started a series of sketches, watercolors and paintings in the Adirondack wilderness.

After visiting a patron with a summer home in Walden, in Orange County, he took to renting rooms with a painter friend in a boarding house on the Esopus Creek in the Ulster County hamlet of Hurley. Homer returned to Hurley repeatedly over the next five years, with side trips – and stays – in the Greene County communities of Catskill, Leeds and Palenville.

The painter gained fame for his images of men and women in the sun-dappled breeze of the Jersey shore, playing croquet in sylvan settings, and other leisurely pursuits that moved his reputation beyond his somber works of war and its aftermath. In the Catskills and Hudson Valley, he captured the Americana of rural childhoods, courtships, and leisurely farm days.

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“He is a genuine painter; that is, to see, and to reproduce what he sees, is his only care; to think, to imagine, to select, to refine, to compose, to drop into any of the intellectual tricks with which other people sometimes try to eke out the dull pictorial vision – all this Mr. Homer triumphantly avoids,” wrote Henry James in an 1875 review of a New York exhibit.

Some have noticed the reoccurrence of a young woman in the painter’s work from his time in our area. Some have written of his unrequited love for a younger society woman, carried in brief, heartfelt letters, and in his appearances at her own summer stays in the area during that time.

That woman married a poet/editor and Winslow Homer stopped visiting Hurley, finished up a final series of romantic works depicting a sadder vision of love from a farm he’d visit near Storm King, and then went back southward to visit and paint former slaves working the Virginia fields where he’d earlier painted battle scenes.

When Homer summered on an island in the bay off Gloucester, Massachusetts, he found himself drawn to the sea. He hunted and fished in the Adirondacks and the Caribbean. The settings for his paintings grew more dramatic. He spent a season on the raw coastline of northern England, creating watercolors of the sailors’ wives who looked to the horizon for their lost partners, and of the men who’d pull each other in from savage shipwrecks.

Those later works of the artist soared towards modernism, growing more and more abstract as the painter settled into a home on the Maine coast mesmerized by the power of wind, waves, and the tumult of nature’s ways. These settings served to simplify his un-self-conscious approach to a greater degree of abstraction, He achieved a depth of observation that’s kept his calmly observant aesthetic contemporary to this day.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.