Homer, Winslow (1836−1910)

Winslow Homer was an American painter and engraver. After beginning his career as a freelance illustrator for magazines like Harper's Weekly, he turned to the subject of children in one-room schoolhouses, on farms, and at the seashore. By the 1880s he moved away from this theme of childhood, and began to paint the dramatic seascapes of Maine and the hunting and fishing scenes from the Adirondacks for which he is well-known.

Homer's pictures of schoolchildren depict both the interior and exterior of the rural red one-room schoolhouse. Homer publicly exhibited or published eight paintings and two engravings of this subject between 1871 and 1874. The most well-known of these is a picture (of which there are two versions) of a group of boys playing the game of snap-the-whip. Others depict the young female teacher or children engaged in their lessons. The female teacher was a sign of the modernity of the pictures (the prevalence of female teachers was brought about by the Civil War), while the rural one-room schoolhouse was a nostalgic image for urban viewers. Importantly, the public school was seen as a uniquely American institution, and therefore the pictures were also seen as particularly national. Two of them represented the United States at the 1878 Paris Exposition.

During these years Homer also painted many farm scenes, featuring both children and adults. He depicted boys relaxing and engaged in summer activities (including crossing a pasture to go fishing, sleeping on the grass, eating watermelon, and fishing from a log). Many of these pastoral images also include young girls, and often a flirtatious exchange between the two. Henry James described these figures as "little barefoot urchins and little girls in calico sun-bonnets." Towards the end of the decade Homer painted a group of works which depicted young girls on the farm, or "shepherdesses," as contemporary critics called them.

Some of Homer's paintings were watercolors, including a large group from his 1873 summer visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts. These pictures depict children, especially boys, along the seashore: in the water on boats (including Breezing Up), on the beach, digging for clams, and looking out to sea. In Gloucester, where many fishermen were lost at sea in the 1870s, this last theme (as in pictures like Waiting for Dad) is especially poignant.

Homer's pictures are consistent with the growing interest in childhood in the late nineteenth century. Although they often depicted a sense of an earlier world, they were very different from the sentimentalized genre pictures of the period. As such, they received a mixed reception from contemporary critics. While some praised the subjects as particularly national and representative of the unique way of American life, others lambasted the subjects as coarse; while some saw his style as innovative and modern, others saw it as unfinished and crude. The mixed responses are typical of the changing standards of the art world in the 1870s; during the twentieth century some of these pictures of children were among Homer's best-known works.

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Carren, Rachel Ann. 1990. "From Reality to Symbol: Images of Children in the Art of Winslow Homer." Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, College Park.

Cikovsky, Nicolai, Jr., and Frank Kelly. 1995. Winslow Homer. Washington: National Gallery of Art.

Conrads, Margaret C. 2001. Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s. Princeton: Princeton University Press.