Master Painter

The Artistic Evolution of Winslow Homer: From Commercial Illustrator to Master Painter

by Daily Banner

Winslow Homer is an internationally revered American artist well known for his expertise in the finest artistic tools of watercolor painting, oil painting, and sketching. No wonder, he is widely remembered for his immense contributions to the advanced evolution of American art and his portrayal of the rugged American landscape and seascapes.

However, Homer’s artistic journey to becoming the ‘Master Painter’ wasn’t an easy ride and didn’t happen overnight. He had to experiment with different techniques and that was when his interest in art escalated.

Besides techniques, his focus on the subject of his artwork also transitioned. This led to him becoming a master painter from a commercial illustrator. Today we will delve deep into exploring Winslow Homer’s artistic evolution.

Early Life and Training

Winslow Homer was born on February 24, 1836, in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother was an amateur watercolorist, and his father was a successful hardware merchant. Homer began his artistic training as an apprentice in a Boston lithography firm, J. H. Bufford, at the age of 19. Here, he learned the art of commercial illustration and produced images for magazines, sheet music covers, and other popular prints. His work soon became popular, and he was known for his witty and humorous illustrations.

By 1859, he had opened his own studio and was producing illustrations for popular publications such as Harper’s Weekly and Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion.

Transition to Fine Art and New York Years

In the 1860s, Homer started to make a transition to fine art. He began to study painting under the tutelage of Frederic Rondel, a French-trained artist based in Boston. Homer produced his first oil paintings, which were genre scenes and portraiture. However, it wasn’t until he moved to New York City in 1866 that his painting style began to change.

Homer’s time in New York marked a significant turning point in his artistic career. He started to work as a freelance illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, a popular newspaper and produced many images depicting contemporary life. He also produced several Civil War scenes, which were some of his most famous works, including Prisoners from the Front and The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty.

During this period, Homer began experimenting with watercolors, a medium that would soon become his primary focus. He made several trips to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, where he produced a series of stunning watercolors. These works were a departure from the traditional landscape paintings of the time and marked the beginning of Homer’s experimentation with light and atmosphere.

He continued to work as an illustrator for several years after the war, but he eventually turned his attention to oil painting. His early oil paintings focused on the everyday life of rural America, but he quickly became known for his seascapes, which captured the power and drama of the ocean.

The Pivotal Move to Maine

In the 1870s, Homer moved to Maine, where he would spend the rest of his life. It was during this period that he produced some of his growing interest in the human experience and the natural world. During this time, he produced some of his most iconic works, including “Weatherbeaten” and “Undertow”.

In 1883, Homer made the decision to move permanently to Prouts Neck, a coastal town in southern Maine. There were several reasons why Homer chose to move to Maine. For one, he was drawn to the rugged beauty of the coast and the dramatic weather patterns. He also found that Maine offered him more privacy and solitude than he could find in his previous home in New York City. Finally, Maine was relatively close to Boston, which meant that Homer could easily visit his family and friends.

Impact on Homer’s Art: Birth of the Master Painter

Homer’s move to Maine had a profound impact on his art. In New York, he had been primarily a studio painter, creating seascapes from his imagination or from sketches he had made during trips to the coast. In Maine, however, he began painting directly from nature, working outdoors in all kinds of weather. This allowed him to capture the subtle shifts in light and color that occur throughout the day and the changing seasons.

Homer’s Maine paintings are characterized by their strong sense of place. He often depicted the rocky coastline, with its crashing waves and gulls hovering overhead. His paintings are also notable for their moodiness and emotional intensity. He frequently used dark, brooding colors to convey a sense of foreboding, as in “The Fog Warning” or “Eight Bells”.

Homer’s move to Maine coincided with a broader shift in American art toward a more realistic and naturalistic style. This movement, known as American Realism, rejected the idealized depictions of nature and society that had characterized much of American art in the past. Homer was one of the most important figures in this movement, and his Maine paintings played a key role in shaping the style. His depictions of the rugged Maine coastline and the lives of the people who lived there helped to create a new vision of America as a place of gritty realism and individuality.


Winslow Homer’s artistic evolution was a gradual process that began with his work as a commercial illustrator and culminated in his paintings of the Maine coast. Throughout his career, Homer remained committed to depicting the natural world in a realistic and honest way. His move to Maine allowed him to take this commitment to a new level, producing some of the greatest works of American art in the process. Homer’s legacy as a master painter endures to this day, a testament to his skill and vision as an artist.

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