Winslow Homer, American Artist: His World and His Work

By Albert Ten Eyck Gardner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES

"The life that I have chosen gives me my full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life. The Sun will not rise, or set, without my notice and thanks."

Winslow Homer in a letter to his brother, Charles, written in February 1895.

GOODRICH -- Winslow Homer

NO ONE has ever succeeded in casting any bohemian glamour on the plain facts of Winslow Homer's biography. In reality the account of his life is not much more than a sober workaday Yankee record of illustrations drawn and published, watercolors and oils painted, exhibited, and sold. Toward the end of his career he received solidly rewarding sums of cash for his work, and the equally satisfying recognition that came from his fellow artists and from the art organizations of the country that honored themselves in awarding to him gold medals and prizes. However, in general his life was a rather quiet one.

One of the difficulties presented to those who would write a biography of Winslow Homer is that the man himself is so elusive. His great reserve, his love of privacy, his self-effacement, while they may be admirable characteristics, leave the biographer with at best a rather shadowy person- ality to deal with. Homer does not fit well into any ordinary category, he was neither founder nor close follower of any school of painting, in life he stood alone as a man and as an artist, and in history he remains more or less a solitary, and his extreme reticence about his ideas and about his personal life raises many problems. While he could not be called a man of mystery, he was not, even at the high tide of his fame, a popular public personality. His life was not one of those glamorous storybook adventures full of dramatic tensions and unexpected turns of fortune.

A number of his letters have survived, but the majority of them have been preserved by the dealers who sold his pictures; thus the main topic of most of them is the business details of selling pictures -- prices, framing, shipping, etc. Though these letters contain a certain amount of informa- tion of interest to the biographer, they are not the intimate kind of personal letter addressed to friends or relatives that might tell us more about the man himself. Even the letters he did address to members of his family are in general brief and very revealing. The fragmentary remarks and bits of conversation recorded in various places make up a tantalizing glimpse, but hardly more than a glimpse, of the artist.

From what little has been recorded about Homer's parents we know that both of them were strongly individualistic people with marked personalities of an unusual stamp. The mere fact that Homer's father encouraged him in his desire to be an artist makes the father stand out as a rather unorthodox Victorian parent. His mother's skill as a painter, her love of art, her reputation for wit

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