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Homer, Winslow (1836-1910)  
 
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One of the most prolific and important American painters and printmakers of the second half of the nineteenth century, Winslow Homer created a distinctly American, modern classical style.

For this and other reasons, his works have often been compared to the achievements of such prominent nineteenth-century American authors as Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman.

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Homer dealt with many of the same themes that these writers did, including the heroism displayed by ordinary individuals, when confronted by seemingly insuperable difficulties; the camaraderie and friendships enjoyed by soldiers and working men; and the isolation of the individual in the face of the "Other."

Education and Early Career

Born in Boston on February 24, 1836, Homer was initially trained as an artist by his mother, Henrietta Benson Winslow, who successfully exhibited watercolors of flowers and other still life subjects throughout her adult life.

Between 1855 and 1857, he was apprenticed to John H. Bufford, a nationally prominent commercial artist, based in Boston; with this training, he began to do free-lance work for Harper's Weekly and other magazines.

Aspiring to establish himself in the fine art world, he moved in 1859 to New York where he took painting lessons and began to exhibit drawings and paintings of urban scenes (for example, Skating in Central Park, 1860, shown at the National Academy of Design, April, 1860).

In 1861, Homer was commissioned by Harper's Weekly as a special artist/correspondent to record the events of the Civil War. Homer failed to produce the heroic battle scenes that his editors had wanted. Yet his images of the daily lives of ordinary soldiers greatly appealed to the magazine's readers and helped to establish his reputation.

Among other subjects, he represented guard duty (A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, wood engraving, 1867); punishments for minor infractions (A Punishment for Intoxication, painting, 1863); medical care for the wounded (The Surgeon at Work at the Rear During an Engagement, wood engraving, 1862); and recreation (Soldier Dancing, drawing, 1862).

As the war ended, Homer revealed the personal "costs" of the conflict in such images as The Empty Sleeve at Newport (wood engraving, 1865), which represents a one-armed man, riding in a carriage with a sad, aloof well-dressed woman.

Simultaneously, he began to develop his mature classicizing style in such idyllic works as A Game of Croquet (1866); in this carefully balanced composition, he endowed the two women with the strength and solidity of the figures in ancient Greek reliefs.

On a professional level, Homer's extended stay in Paris, from 1867 to 1869, seems to have been most important in reinforcing his sense of confidence. In contrast to most nineteenth-century American artists who traveled to Europe, he did not substantially alter his style to accord with European conventions.

Although Homer continued to depict the recreation of the prosperous urban middle classes (for example, Long Beach, New Jersey, 1869), he increasingly devoted himself to scenes of country life.

He began to create representations of single figures and pairs of hunters, which remained a recurring theme in his work for the rest of his life (for example The Trapper, Adirondacks, 1870; and After the Hunt, 1892). Although it is often interpreted as a straightforward celebration of rural life, Snap the Whip (1872) also suggests the dangers involved in the transition from childhood to adulthood, as the boys tumble into the distance.

Homer's Private Life

Very little is known about Homer's "private" life. He consistently refused to answer personal questions from critics and potential biographers, and he left no revealing diaries or other personal papers. His reclusiveness is indicated by the fact that he produced no self-portraits; in contrast, most American and European painters of the nineteenth century eagerly exploited the rapidly growing market for images of artists.

Most historians have adamantly maintained that Homer remained a bachelor because he was extraordinarily "shy" around women. However, such deeply moving and psychologically complex pictures as The Country School (1871) and Mending the Nets (1882), among many others, suggest a respect for and understanding of women that was very unusual for a male artist of the era. Thus, it would seem more plausible to suggest that Homer simply may not have been interested in women sexually.

Constructing Homer as a solitary eccentric, who virtually withdrew from human society, most scholars have overlooked evidence of significant, intimate associations with other men.

One of his closest friends was Albert Kelsey, a fellow artist whom he initially met in 1858 in Massachusetts. In 1867, Kelsey traveled with Homer to Paris, where they lived together for the next two years.

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Winslow Homer and three of his paintings: The Herring Net, Undertow, and Rum Cay.
  
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