Winslow Homer, American Artist: His World and His Work

By Albert Ten Eyck Gardner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
HOMER AS ILLUSTRATOR OF BOOKS AND MAGAZINES, 1859-75

"The busy scene depicted by our artist, Mr. Homer, is a faithful representation, sketched for us from life . . ."

Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, 1857.

WINSLOW HOMER must have been one of the very few important American artists who served an apprenticeship in a lithographer's shop in the old-fashioned way and then went on to become a free-lance illustrator while establishing a reputation as a painter. In its way Bufford's Boston lithography shop and printing establishment were Homer's Academy of Fine Arts; the annual shows at the Boston Athenaeum were for him Louvre and Salon; and in the early days the editors of Ballou Pictorial and Harper Weekly were the vitally important patrons who enabled him to approach his goal of financial and artistic independence.

Homer had the good fortune to end his apprenticeship at Bufford's just at the time when the new and flourishing pictorial periodicals created a demand for illustrators. In fact Homer's work as an illustrator coincides almost exactly with the period in which magazine publishers were most eager to employ artists. When Homer ceased to make and sell illustrations in the later 1870's, the newly invented mechanical processes for reproducing photographs were just about to put an end to the wide employment of artists as illustrators. By that time Homer was able to pursue his independent way by the often-precarious but continuing sale of his watercolors and oil paintings.

Homer's work as an illustrator has always been called a prelude to his greater work as a painter. The years he devoted mainly to illustration were indeed a time of training for his hand and eye -- a training that had the greatest effect upon his pictures. His practice as an illustrator undoubtedly brought under firm control his ability to draw quickly and easily. With maturity this practice and control gave him the flashing dexterity he was able later to display in his watercolors.

Much has been made of the distinction between Homer's work as an illustrator and as a painter. However, this distinction is really rather an arbitrary one. His illustrations and his paintings are frequently related, and many of his pencil sketches were worked up first into salable illustrations, then at leisure developed into watercolors and further elaborated into oil paintings, and a few of these are even carried another step to become etchings. Thus one pictorial idea becomes salable in various forms, for Homer was not the man to let any of his work go to waste.

The Civil War provided the young illustrator with a whole new range of subjects, and from these he drew the ideas embodied in his first really important painting -- Prisoners from the Front -- a painting that placed him in the front rank of the younger artists when it was shown at the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition in 1866. But, important as this success may have been in the

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