“Do not think that I have stopped painting, for at any moment, I am liable to paint a good picture.”
Born in 1836 in Boston, Winslow Homer was a 19th-century American artist known for his paintings, drawings, and wood engravings. He is best recognized for his landscape paintings and printmaking, with many of his famous works featuring marine subjects.
Impressively self-taught, Homer is still highly regarded as an important figure in American art. Below, we’ll explore some of the most famous Winslow Homer paintings. But first, let’s explore how this inspiringly influential creator got his start.
Winslow Homer’s beginnings
Once a commercial illustrator, Winslow Homer later took up oil and watercolor painting. His most popular studio works were “characterized by the weight and density he exploited from the medium.” His watercolor paintings often depicted his working vacations. (Perhaps, Winslow Homer could be considered the original poster child of the now ever-popular “work-from-anywhere” lifestyle!)
Following his high school graduation, Homer’s father secured him an apprenticeship with a commercial lithographer in Boston, MA. After designing sheet music covers for two years, Homer took a job at Harper’s Weekly in 1857, enjoying the diversity and freedom that freelance work offered.
In fact, he reminisced at one point, “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and never shall have any.” Fast-forward twenty years, and Homer was still working as a commercial illustrator, contributing to lifestyle magazines across the city, and creating commercial wood engravings depicting urban and country social life.
Winslow Homer’s art, from early in his career, was characterized by dramatic contrasts of light and dark, clean outlines, lively subjects – an artistic style he carried with him as he began to explore painting.
Homer lived in Belmont, Massachusetts with his family in his uncle’s mansion. Known today as the Homer House, around 1853 it served as the inspiration of many Winslow Homer prints, illustrations, and paintings (some of which featured family members playing croquet in the yard).
In 1859, Homer moved to New York, where he opened his own studio, and the creative juices further flowed.
7 important Winslow Homer paintings to know
Winslow Homer’s Civil War paintings
Once he set himself up in the Big Apple, Winslow Homer attended art classes at the National Academy of Design. Within one year of self-training, he was already mastering oil painting. While his family worked to raise money to send Homer to Europe to continue his training, instead, Homer was sent to the frontlines of the American Civil War.
Harper’s Weekly had Homer sketch everything from battles to quiet camp life. Initially, Winslow Homer Civil War paintings centered around scenes of commanders and soldiers under Union officer Major General George B. McClellan.
Below, Prisoners from the front, an 1866 oil painting on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a prime example of Homer’s Civil War work. Here, Confederate officers are surrendering to Union Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow.
While his Civil War paintings were some of the most telling of the period, Winslow Homer’s postwar paintings were just as telling, if not more, of the tension and hope that followed. Some featured freed slaves and former masters, depicting uncertainty about the future and hope for improved conditions for Blacks in the years of the Reconstruction.
Additional key examples of Winslow Homer’s art
Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip, an 1872 oil painting, features a group of children playing “crack the whip” in a flowery field, with a tiny red schoolhouse behind them. Inspired by Homer’s summers in New York’s Hudson Valley, this painting evokes a sense of nostalgia – of rural life that many Americans were leaving behind, pre-Civil War era.
The original version of this work now hangs in the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio, with a second version on display in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We frankly confess that we detest his subjects … he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial…,” said American author Henry James of this work, Winslow Homer’s Breezing Up, 1873-1876.
However, many disagreed with him – they regarded Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) as a memorable masterpiece. The oil painting, which depicts a father and three boys on a Gloucester catboat with their catch, received lots of praise. According to The New York Tribune, “There is no picture in this exhibition, nor can we remember when there has been a picture in any exhibition, that can be named alongside this.”
As of 1943, Breezing Up has been on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and is described on the museum’s website as, “one of the best-known and most beloved artistic images of life in nineteenth-century America.”
Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning is yet another work that marks one of the artist’s best known oil paintings. Painted in 1885, it’s one of several paintings of marine subjects by Homer, showing the difficult lives of fishermen in New England (this scene is of a Maine fisherman with his recently caught halibut).
Following a few years spent in England, Winslow Homer returned to the US to settle in Prout’s Neck, Maine, where his father and brother had bought land. There, Homer painted scenes of the sea, and of fishermen and their families. Late paintings of Homer’s, including The Fog Warning, often depicted one single figure at sea.
This remarkable work can be seen in Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, and is described by the museum as, “a painting with a narrative, though its tale is disturbing rather than charming.”
One of the best examples of a Winslow Homer watercolor is this work from 1885, A Garden in Nassau. This was one of 30 watercolors done during Homer’s first visit to the Bahamas – he was interested more in local life, rather than tourist sites. Here, a young local boy sits outside a wall around an unseen home.
Winslow Homer’s The Fox Hunt is another famous oil painting, created in 1893. It features a fox running in deep snow, in search of food while being chased by crows. Called the artist’s “greatest Darwinian painting,” it was also painted in the artist’s studio in Prouts Neck, Maine.
The work was purchased from the artist in 1894 by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where it remains on view today.
Last but not least is Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream, painted in 1899. This work features a man in a fishing boat, without rudders, struggling in the strong waves with hungry sharks surrounding him. Yet another marine subject, this work was inspired by the artist’s time vacationing in Florida, Cuba, and the Caribbean.
Before completing the final painting, and after creating several versions of the work in watercolor, Homer had visited Nassau and Florida. The Gulf Stream became the first of a series of major works, which the artist painted in his last decade before his death in 1910. It’s said to also emit “a sense of abandonment or vulnerability,” as it was painted in the final year of the 19th century, and the year after the death of Homer’s father.
The ongoing influence of an American icon
While entirely a self-taught artist, Winslow Homer’s works influenced many American painters to follow him, particularly as he was so directly able to depict man’s relationship with wilderness.
Homer left artists to succeed him with wise words that capture his individualistic style: “Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.” Winslow Homer’s art inspired artists like N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth, among others.
Admiration for Winslow Homer has not ceased, particularly across America. In 1962, the U.S. Post Office commemorated Winslow Homer by choosing to use his above-mentioned oil painting, Breezing Up, on a stamp. Later, in 2010, the Postal Service issued another commemorative stamp with Homer’s Boys in a Pasture in a stamp series called “American Treasures.”
And indeed, admirers to this day flock to see Homer’s ‘American treasures’ in museums across the nation, and if lucky, continue to bid for his remarkable paintings, watercolors, and prints at auction.
One notable work that may soon be up for grabs thanks to the recently announced split of Bill and Melinda Gates is Winslow Homer’s Lost on the Grand Banks, which Bill Gates paid $36 million for in a 1998 private sale (a record price at the time).