Excerpt: Winslow Homer in Gloucester

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Then there was the fleet as seen by the artists. Winslow Homer was the first major painter to portray the seductively sleek and fast schooners developed after the Civil War when hull and sail plan were refined to exploit the Banks fisheries on a large scale. (Other types of vessels predominate in Fitz Henry Lane’s earlier paintings of Gloucester harbor, with only an occasional fishing schooner seen under way.)

In 1873, when Homer stayed at the Atlantic Hotel in Gloucester, he was still doing wood engravings for Harper’s Weekly. These were finely detailed sketches like the ones he had sent from the front during the Civil War. One of his Gloucester works of this period is “Gloucester Harbor,” with boys in dories intent on something in the water, while younger ones loaf disinterested. Beyond them two schooners under full sail are catching the wind, heading out toward a horizon crowded with other vessels. On one level it is pure illustration. But you cannot ignore those boys. Homer knew that in a few years they would be manning other schooners sailing to uncertain fates.

Homer was also painting watercolor versions of his subjects, exploring a separate form of artistic expression. His watercolors were freer, more spontaneous than the engravings. Here again many of his subjects are children inventing games on the shore with the schooner sails beyond in the harbor. The boys gaze out to the sea where a father might be alive or lost. They are boys growing up alongside girls in pinafores who would be their wives, and often their widows. In “Waiting for Dad” Homer makes the connection explicit: the confident but anxious son perched on a dory gazing seaward. Behind him is his mother, holding an infant, her expression and stance sad, stoic, resigned. She yearns for the return of her husband, to share the warmth of her bed briefly, perhaps leaving the seed of another infant before the cycle of parting, waiting and hoping repeats.

In another of Homer’s Gloucester paintings, “Waiting for the Boats,” one boy rests a reassuring hand on the shoulder of his chum as both study distant sail contours, hoping to make out a familiar shape.

In the summer of 1880 Homer was back in Gloucester, and this time he had talked Mrs. Octavius Merrill, wife of the lighthouse keeper on Ten Pound Island, into letting him stay in a spare house on the island. Mrs. Merrill was related to an old friend of Homer’s who could vouch for the respectability of this boarder, even if he was an artist (the referral probably emphasized Homer’s credentials as a successful magazine illustrator). Mrs. Merrill would be able to report that the boarder was well-behaved, although perhaps given to a sundowner or two, kept to himself, knew some uptown people ashore but reserved his limited store of sociability for a pair of fishermen who would stop by to see what he was painting.

Winslow Homer in that second Gloucester summer heeded a call from the sea. He renounced commercial illustration and began, with bold sunset watercolors of the harbor, the absorption with the ocean and its cryptic symbolism that would dominate his canvasses thereafter.

 

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