Boating Boys in Gloucester is a product of Winslow Homer's 1880 summer visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts. An ideal New England coastal community untouched by industrialization and known for its fostering of art and artists, Homer's depictions of Gloucester has been widely recognized as some of the artist's best work. The summer of 1880 was one of great experimentation and productivity for the artist. The importance of this period in Homer's career was noted by D. Scott Atkinson: "...the summer of 1880--devoted exclusively to watercolor--was one of culminating maturation. The long apprenticeship that had begun in Gloucester concluded there with a group of watercolors demonstrating Homer's command of the medium and breadth of vision." (Winslow Homer in Gloucester, Chicago, Illinois, 1990, p. 53) Boating Boys in Gloucester is a superb example of Homer's Gloucester watercolors and his ability to depict color and light.
The boats which populated Gloucester Harbor held a particular interest for Homer. The artist must have felt a great liberation from the shore and civilization, not only physically, but also spiritually; feelings which he conveyed in depicting his subjects. The sea and its various moods embodied a major portion of Homer's work throughout his life--calm and recreational, as in this painting; turbulent and rugged in his later subjects of Prout's Neck and its fisherman. Boating Boys in Gloucester is one of many nautical subjects that Homer produced that summer. By 1880, he had given up illustration and devoted much of his attention to depicting light and atmosphere in his paintings. Using washes of paint, Homer gives the viewer a vivid sense of his surroundings and the feeling of the seacoast that so greatly affected him.
Boating Boys in Gloucester depicts two boys, each in their own vessel, sitting in the still waters of Gloucester Harbor. Homer chose Gloucester as his inspiration not only for the picturesque views of specific sites and landmarks, but also the presence of local boys along the shore. Beginning in the late 1860s, Homer began to explore the theme of boyhood, a topic more pleasing than his recent chronicling of the Civil War. E. P. Richardson described the artist's subjects as "all that is to be said about a certain aspect of life--a day, or a situation, the timeless ease of a boy's summer afternoon." (Winslow Homer in Gloucester, p. 16)
Boys were an important element in many of Homer's watercolors, but in 1880 there was a distinct compositional shift in emphasis. "The boys of the second Gloucester summer seem more completely subsumed by their environment," writes D. Scott Atkinson, "relegated to a single element integrated within the panorama of the town and harbor, and enveloped in a silvery natural light." (Winslow Homer in Gloucester, p. 50) Homer most likely used this idealized depiction of childhood in order for the viewer to escape not only the rugged life of adulthood, but also the harsh realities of progress, urban blight, economic woes, and the new industrial environment. Such a celebration of childhood paralleled the literature of the period; most notably Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. According to Helen Cooper, Homer's Gloucester subjects actually reinvented childhood, merging the artist's own nostalgia "...with memories of a bygone world of warmth, trust, and shared experiences," which mirrors America's postwar yearning for the innocence of antebellum days. (Winslow Homer Watercolors, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 26)
Boating Boys in Gloucester retains delicately toned washes that typify Homer's best watercolors. While this work appears at first to be a straightforward description of the activities that he witnessed, it also provides insight into his technical development. Like his earlier watercolors, in Boating Boys in Gloucester the water and sky are depicted with broad and gentle sweeps of watercolor. The beautifully rendered reflection in the foreground is the only movement in this quiet watercolor. These reflections are filled with varied washes of blues, grays and black. Homer has enlivened his dramatic tonal coloring with subtle, brilliant touches of ochre in the reflection.
Writing about Homer's technical advances during his time in Gloucester, Helen Cooper notes that in the summer of 1880, "Homer's use of color took a great leap forward, and whole sheets became embodiments of a new found coloristic energy...Simplifying his palette to Prussian blue, cobalt, vermilion, yellow ocher, and black and selecting a heavily grained wove watercolor paper, Homer began each watercolor study over the barest graphite sketch, relying on color alone, blocking the principal masses and tones, and accomplishing the overall structure of the composition in color rather than in line." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, pp. 72-73)
The low horizon accentuates the large areas of water and sky and is a common device of the artist's works. Homer uses these large fields of color to experiment with light and tone, separating the sky into layers of atmosphere. The figures are rendered in a more delicate manner, with only broad attention to detail in the boys' faces, hats and the boats. The entire composition is unified by Homer's careful observation of light and atmosphere. The buoyant spirit of the work--depicting two boys whiling away the hours in hazy sunlight--is highly characteristic of Homer's best Gloucester watercolors.
Both the subject and techniques used by Homer in his watercolors of 1880 came under attack by the critics. But while many wrote of the "two-dimensional" and "sketchy" quality of these works, others recognized in them Homer's skilled and innovative use of his medium in creating simple, direct, and powerful compositions. "If the summer of 1873 was a period of nascent learning," writes one art historian," the summer of 1880--devoted exclusively to watercolor--was one of culminating maturation. The long apprenticeship that had begun in Gloucester concluded there with a group of watercolors demonstrating Homer's command of the medium and breadth of vision." (Winslow Homer in Gloucester, p. 53) These works, including Boating Boys in Gloucester, remain a body of work which together constitute a pivotal moment of his career as America's foremost painter in watercolor.
This work will be included in the forthcoming Sapnierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.