Friday, June 18, 2010

Winslow Homer in Gloucester, Massachusetts and some digressions, one personal, others not.

Above is a shot of Gloucester from the late 20's, but I think it probably looked much like this in Winslow Homers time there. That's the town hall in the background with the clock tower. It was brand new when Homer arrived. In the front entrance is a hall, engraved on the walls are many of the the names of 10,000 men who have been lost at sea fishing out of Gloucester.
Most of the waterfront in this picture was torn out by urban renewal in the 1960's, there is very little left from even as recently as Gruppes time there. What a great place to paint it must have been. I used to paint there a lot when the wooden dragger fleet was still on the water in the 80's, there is not a single eastern rigged dragger left. The last to float was the 120 ft. Vincie N. built in 1927.

illustrations from
Homer made two trips to Gloucester, the first was in 1873 and he stayed in a hotel, the second visit years later, he stayed out on Ten Pound island with the lighthouse keeper. The first trip produced the paintings I am showing tonight. He worked a lot in watercolor. That was new to him and it was unusual. Today we think of watercolor as an artists medium but at that time it was often thought of as a medium for amateurs and for ladies from the finishing schools who were taught to be able to do a little watercolor painting as part of their refinement ( a practice I wish would return)

The Homer watercolors of this trip are done over pencil sketches and have an immediacy and directness to them. So many have imitated the style of these that we assume that they are just how a watercolor ought to look. But they were more original than that, they are fresh and fluidly handled. Most American water colors before this tended to look more like oils and had less transparent and natural color. It was often done using China white, a then commonly used opaque pigment that often spoiled the transparent and immediate look of the paintings.

Homer painted lots of pictures of children playing on the water front with his new watercolors. I guess I get to throw in a personal story here, it IS my blog. Back in the mid 70's I was working one day a week at the Guild Of Boston Artists. The director called to me and said "Stape want to see something interesting?" She then handed me Winslow Homers watercolor kit, with the cakes of paint still in it. It was black metal and I think I remember it being somewhat cylindrical. Whether it was the same kit he carried in Gloucester, I don't know. I remember thinking at the time how odd it was for me to be holding the kit that Homer had carried, sort of magical. Someone must have left it to the Guild, but I don't know who. There is a lot of art history in New England.

There is no doubt about where Homer wanted you eye to go in this piece the rough boards in the foreground and that ramp up to the boat haul us in like struggling halibut.This shipbuilding scene is from that trip and although titled "Shipbuilding in Gloucester" it probably is of nearby Essex, where most of the schooners that sailed from Gloucester were built. The Story boatyard still builds wooden boats on the same spot as it has since 1813. The shipbuilding museum is small and funky but is worth a visit, it is a great place to paint. Buy a membership when you are there, since you are painting on land they maintain, they keep a pretty good set there and need the support. They are welcoming to artists and I hold them in high esteem. They also have a real Gloucester schooner the Evelina M. Goulart, preserved and up on stocks. It is huge and all wood of course.

Here is an oil of the same period, although done in the studio most likely after the trip.

This must have been painted on Bass rocks, or the backshore as the locals call it.

These two boys are carrying their catch past a location that I think I recognize as Rockport, if I am correct the Motif number 1 is just out of the picture to the right. There are a lot of places in Gloucester-Rockport, (they both occupy the tip of Cape Ann) that look like this though.

Isn't this a lovely little painting? I love the color in the dress in the foreground. Homer is at his best in this design. Its such a simple little thing, but there are about a zillion pictures of girls out in fields that are nowhere near as good. Proving once again it isn't what you paint but how you paint it that matters.

This watercolor from that trip is the root of a piece that was to become an American icon called Breezing Up. I will show you that tomorrow night.


Anonymous said...

Hi Stape,
I have 2 books on Homer and none of these pictures are in either book, I can't believe how prolific he was over such a long period. You are the one I want to hear about Homer from.... living where he painted and with your love of our American art history, perfect! Thank you for picking up this history thread again. I feel like a little kid sitting by the wood stove listening to my grandfather tell about living when the indian nations were the majority in our NW. I am glued to every word.

Philip Koch said...

Stape, where'd you find some of those Homer watercolors? There were several beauties I'd never seen.

Once again I am in awe of the mighty Stapleton.

Maineland said...

Here is a link to see one of Homer's watercolor boxes. I've seen one but can't remember if it was the one at Bowdoin College or the one at the Portland Museum of Art. It was very affecting to see in person. As you probably know, PMA is in the process of restoring his studio at Prouts Neck and it will reopen in 2012.

barbara b. land of boz said...

As I set here reading this morning,
I can only say "WoW". I agree with Terry, their is no other I would
rather hear about Homer from.
When I brought up the ship building
painting I thought it was a photo.
I enlarged it to look closer.

I can tell you enjoy telling us
the story. Thank You for your time,
it will be spent well.

billspaintingmn said...

Thanks Stape!

Robert J. Simone said...

Well, now I have a new favorite Homer. That one of the ship building is really cool. All that warm against the cooler sky. Love it.

Mary Byrom said...

Stapleton you are doing it! Keep on keeping on- these are great ! You are posting jewels - I agree with Philip and Robert. And great to see and hear this from your perspective.

Unknown said...

I am just catching up on your Homer posts - thank you so much for taking the time to cover him in depth. I have read several Smithsonian articles on him, but none were as insightful as yours. His life is a great source of motivation for me.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I would rather hear about Homer from Homer, but he has been strangely silent in recent years.
Great stuff Stape. He is one of the great American painters. Rarely do you see a composition that is not spot on.

Unknown said...

from way out west in fire-prone Santa Fe national forest, these are truely a sight for sore eyes.
I love this. I love Homer. I might name my next dog Homer. Or Winslow.
thanks, Stape!!!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. Boy an I tired!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gee thanks

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am looking forward to seeing his studio. Those boxes looking nothing like the one I remember.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am enjoying this, but I am also feeling like there is a big responsibility to get it right.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are welcome. I appreciate the pat on the back, this is a lot of work!!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I like that one too. There is a drawing for it too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, more on this tomorrow!

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

He never calls, he never writes.....

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey great to hear from you. I hope the move went well. How about naming the dog Breezing Up?

T Arthur Smith said...

Hey, according to wikipedia, Homer's mom was a watercolorist, and his first teacher. So he had some experience with this from an early age. It'd be great to see some of her works and compare, if it's possible.

T Arthur Smith said...

found one: