In the spring of 1881, Winslow Homer arrived by ship in Liverpool to seek new inspiration on English shores. After spending a short time in London exploring the British Museum and the Houses of Parliament, Homer eventually moved on to Cullercoats, a small fishing village on the northeast coast of England not far from the Scottish border, where he stayed for twenty months. Two miles from the more fashionable resort town of Tynemouth, in the 1880s Cullercoats had a population of about two thousand people and around eighty fishing boats. In this small town, Homer’s style underwent a significant transformation, employing rounder modeling and grayer tones to reflect the harsh winds and waves of the British coastline. This change in his watercolor technique showcased his admiration for how the local fisherwomen weathered their hardships. As a result, Homer’s paintings recording the daily life at Cullercoats, including Where are the Boats?, are some of the most poignant and compelling watercolors of his career.
Most likely painted from sketches after his return to New York in 1883, Where are the Boats? depicts three fisherwomen awaiting the return of their husbands and sons. The women stand strong near the edge of a cliff, one actively seeking out the boats on the horizon while the other two industriously continue their knitting. Homer was exceedingly impressed by the demeanor of these active women. Helen Cooper explains, “Like most everyone else who visited Cullercoats, Homer was drawn to the fisherwomen. ‘Fair complexioned, sun-tanned, ruddy cheeks, with strong-built but supple forms’ they were famous for their beauty. They were, as one writer put it, ‘the great feature of the place’… not only did the complete care of the family fall to them, but its prosperity was largely dependent on their ability to sell the fish the men caught. As the men slept, the fisherwomen worked throughout the day. They searched for bait, dug for sand worms, or gathered mussels, limpets, and dogcrabs from the rocks. They assisted in the baiting of hooks, helped to push the boats into the often icy waters at sunset, and pulled them in again at The fisherwoman was described as healthy and powerful; her ways, modest and restrained.’’ (H. Cooper, Winslow Homer Watercolors, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 116-17)
Although the women in Where are the Boats? bear a strong resemblance to each other, Homer particularly illustrates each woman’s individual clothing, head position and stance to reflect his awe with the distinct fashions of these strong, working women. In fact, the artist is recorded as saying, “Look at the fishergirls…in this picture I am painting; there are none like them in my country in dress, feature or form. Observe the petticoat that girl is wearing. No American girl could be found wearing a garment of that color or fashioned in that style.” (Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation, Berkeley, California, 2002, p. 99) Homer’s Cullercoats watercolors also show a powerful emphasis on the natural world surrounding his figural subjects. In Where are the Boats?, Homer paints rocky cliffs and a cloudy sky to recreate the harsh mood of the northeastern English shore. Strong winds are evident in the eroded cliff face and blowing aprons. Homer renders these environmental elements through a combination of the broad washes of color he had long favored with more refined detail and tighter handling, particularly for the rock surface and figures.
Homer’s Cullercoats pictures received favorable reviews from the very beginning. For example, a contemporary critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer wrote, “The most complete and beautiful things he has yet produced, [and] among the most interesting American art has yet created. They are, to begin with, pictures in the truest sense, and not mere studies or sketches, like most of his earlier aquarelles...The dignity of these landscapes and the statuesque impressiveness and sturdy vigor of these figures, translated by the strong sincerity of his brush, prove an originality of mood, a vigor of conception, and a sort of stern poetry of feeling to which he had never reached before.” (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 119)