Winslow HOMER THE ILLUSTRATOR: His Wood Engravings, 1857-1888

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Winslow HOMER THE ILLUSTRATOR: His Wood Engravings, 1857-1888


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


What could possibly be more American, and reflective of our past, than the works of artist Winslow Homer? As a 19th-century painter and illustrator, he documented the Civil War and depicted scenes representing nearly every aspect of American life. In the late 19th century, he virtually revolutionized American painting and turned out to be one of our nation's most influential artists.

Born in Boston to a long-established, middle-class New England family, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was first introduced to art through the decorative watercolors painted by his mother, who also encouraged his artistic interests. Homer would eventually return to the medium of watercolor as a mature artist and would emerge as one of the greatest masters of this challenging medium.

At museums and through reproductive prints, Homer became familiar with the works of the great European old masters and even the European modernists. It should be noted that, at this time, European art was considered the paradigm, and it was understood that American artists should emulate the styles of artists from abroad.

Nevertheless, as Homer was growing into manhood, American artists were developing a style unique to this new and ever-expanding country. Under the leadership of Thomas Cole, the pioneering artists of the Hudson River School were recording American subjects in a manner that recognized the past while also foreshadowing trends of the future.

At the age of 19, the young Homer was apprenticed to John H. Bufford, a well-known Boston lithographer. Here he was assigned the most routine of tasks, such as drawing pictures of portraits from photographs, and illustrating covers for popular songs. While the position may have been uninspiring and routine, the projects refined his talents and served as a type of schooling. Except for a brief period of study at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1858, Homer was, remarkably, self-taught.

On his 21st birthday, at the end of his apprenticeship, Homer left Bufford's and launched his career as a free-lance illustrator, first for Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, a Boston weekly, then for New York's prestigious Harper's Weekly.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, his editors sent him as an artist-correspondent to the battlefields of Virginia to produce illustrations for magazine articles. Rather than depicting the violence of combat, Homer preferred--and was better at--portraying the everyday experiences of camp life that account for a majority of a soldier's existence. Bold, fresh, honest and naturalistic, these illustrations were sketched on location and converted into wood engravings in the New York studio. Homer's realistic wood engravings established the artist's reputation and gained him a national following.

Following the Civil War, Harper's Weekly helped Homer with expenses for a European trip in exchange for illustration designs. More importantly, however, this European experience had a significant impact on Homer's style.

Experts agree that the wood engravings from this period are decidedly more distinctive, assured and spontaneous. The compositions are more focused and the drama of the scene is enhanced. Homer created an image featuring Art Students and Copyists in the Louvre Gallery, Paris. Considering his dramatic shift in style, one might easily surmise that Homer also spent some time studying the masterpieces in this museum.

In the years between his return from Europe in 1867 and his departure from Harper's in 1875, Homer produced nearly 100 engraved illustrations. Rather than record the news or social events of the period, Homer returned to the themes of his early life and his early work. He portrayed pleasant and carefree rural scenes of agrarian life, often featuring children at play. Perhaps he sought to prolong a simpler lifestyle that was disappearing with the Industrial Revolution. Unlike most of his early work, however, many of these later prints ceased to illustrate a story and were created and accepted as independent, unique works of art. …

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