Winslow Homer first traveled to Maine in July 1874 to visit his brother Arthur and his new wife during their honeymoon at the Willows Hotel in Prout's Neck, on the southern coast overlooking Saco Bay. He went to the area periodically with his family during the following nine years and then moved from New York to Prout's Neck permanently in 1883. Homer found the secluded area to be a refuge from his busy life in New York where machines progressively came to dictate human activity. In Prout's Neck, men and women confronted the powers of nature firsthand in a timeless struggle in their daily life and work. "Living at Prout's Neck Homer escaped the turmoil of the city, its complications, its disappointments, and its potentially problematic human relationships...Perhaps in contemplating the sea day in and day out he could forget himself and, to use Emerson's words, 'open his eyes to see things in a true light and in large relations.'" (F. Kelly, Winslow Homer, Washington, D.C., 1995, p. 313) Homer's masterwork, Herring Fishing of 1894, is a reflection of this stark contrast and foreshadows the great theme of the relationship between man and nature that Homer would continue to address for the remainder of his career.
In the spring of 1881, Winslow Homer made his second visit abroad, spending two seasons in Tynemouth, England, a fishing village on the North Sea. It was during this time that the artist focused on drawings and watercolors capturing the surrounding sea and its inhabitants whose lives depended on the sea. Lloyd Goodrich writes that Homer's "scenes were no longer sunlit, the sky no longer clear but a moving spectacle of clouds, the sea no longer the quiet water of Gloucester harbor but a threatening or raging element...there was more envelopment by atmosphere; his color, while often dark, added a wide variety of grays, and a new depth and body; his technical skill increased; and his watercolors were filled with movement of wind and wave and cloud." (Winslow Homer, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1973, p. 35)
The dramatic coast of Prout's Neck proved to be a significant presence in his paintings and a natural continuance of his work in Tynemouth. Herring Fishing demonstrates Homer's strongly rendered drawing style and captures the artist's reverence for life on and the atmosphere of the ocean. In the present work, as if taken from the perspective of a nearby boat, the viewer looks on as two figures toil against the weight of their nets and battle the elements to sustain their livelihood. To capture this dramatic struggle, Homer composed a very modern painting. Stark in its simplicity, Herring Fishing poses a group of men bound together by their common duties against a nearly abstract vision of the ocean. The composition evokes an image of the uncompromising nature of the fishermen's precarious daily lives. Discussing Homer's fishermen paintings, Elizabeth Johns writes, "the men struggle against a rising wave to bring in the loaded net, reaping the ocean's fecundity only by braving its danger. The viewer is at sea with the fishermen, feeling the ocean's very roll in the midst of a damp atmosphere and a seemingly limitless expanse." (Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation, Berkeley, California, 2002, p. 118)
This series of Homer's images of fishermen at work contrasts from his earlier paintings of the sea. Compared, for example, to Homer's early marine painting Breezing Up (1876, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., fig. 1), Herring Fishing is a much more somber painting. The men in the watercolor are in a stationary boat for survival and not for leisure. With their heads down, the men become unidentifiable, representing in their anonymity a general type--a symbol for all fisherman. In contrast, in Breezing Up, the boys are enjoying a swift sail off the shore of Gloucester, creating an atmosphere of excitement. Homer has rendered the faces of these young boys, each with distinctive expressions to portray their exhilaration. This compositional change in emphasis continued in his oeuvre as the artist's work became increasingly darker and more profound.
The dramatically reduced compositional forms and subdued palette of Herring Fishing were new to Homer's work. Aesthetic qualities as bold and innovative as these recall the nocturnes of James McNeill Whistler, such as Nocturne: Blue and Gold--Old Battersea Bridge of 1872-73 and Nocturne: Blue and Silver--Chelsea of 1871 (both: The Tate Gallery, London), which Homer may have seen in London on his way to Tynemouth. Homer might have found Whistler's refined tonalist sensibility engaging, as he himself had become disenchanted with his own work and had come to England to explore new artistic and expressive possibilities. Herring Fishing evokes these possibilities, as Homer developed a clearer sense of the direction that his art would take. Herring Fishing represents Homer looking forward and creating a very modern painting to express profound themes of great timelessness.
Philip C. Beam writes of Herring Fishing, "...it brought to the forefront of his thoughts a theme he had examined long before that still stirred him. He would then reexamine it, probably in the hope of treating it from a new point of view in the midst of quite different subjects. An example of this process is the watercolor Herring Fishing. Nearly ten years earlier he had created a series of similar studies which arose from the following circumstances. In 1884 a large school of herring entered the waters between Stratton's Island and Prout's Neck and attracted a fleet of schooners from up and down the coast. Roswell Coogins, who was thirteen at the time, stated that Homer engaged him to row him out to the fleet, where he made sketch after sketch of the fishermen and their boats. During the ensuing months he made variations of the subject ranging from the complex Haul of Herring (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts) to the quietly dramatic Study (1884-85, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design, New York). This last design crystallized Homer's thoughts and was translated into the noted oil painting The Herring Net (1885, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, fig. 2), a high point in a succession of brilliant studies of the life of the deep-sea fisherman which had its inception along the North Sea coast and included such memorable paintings as The Fog Warning and Eight Bells. Although, according to members of Homer's family, he never visited the Grand Banks of New Foundland, he listened carefully to tales told by the fishermen of Pine Point who had sailed there and never forgot them."
"For Homer to return mentally to Newfoundland in Herring Fishing exemplifies a touch of nostalgia. Owing to a combination of causes, such as the substitution of huge seines for the gill nets shown in the watercolor, the schools of fish had been depleted, and the fishing industry was dying out in the area of Prout's Neck. The watercolor itself is rendered so freely that it conveys a mystical air and a reverence for the sailors who followed a precarious calling. They fished in pairs in order to haul in the heavy nets and also for safety. More than one fisherman who rowed the speedy but tipsy dories owed his life to a dory mate who kept him from falling overboard and drowning in the frigid North Atlantic. Few could swim, and they could not have done so in their heavy clothing in any case. Though simply stated, a bond of dependence in the face of danger is implied in the picture, contributing added subtlety." (Winslow Homer in the 1890s: Prout's Neck Observed, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1990, pp. 130)
Herring Fishing is a brilliant example of Homer's exploration of nature through the media of watercolor. Herring Fishing retains delicately toned washes that typify Homer's best watercolors. The horizon line that separates the sky from the water is set only by a thin line, creating a large field of blue in order to experiment with light and color. Homer has enlivened his dramatic tonal coloring with subtle, brilliant touches of russet on the edge of the boat, the buoy, the fish and the boat in the distance. The beautifully rendered reflection in the foreground is filled with varied washes of blues and black. With watercolor, Homer was able to convey the atmosphere on the water and the movement of the clouds, unifying the entire composition. Homer uses this application of watercolor as no other artist did at the time. He combined fluid, transparent washes and juxtaposed them with richer colors. Homer has painted a watercolor of great beauty and peacefulness as well as a work showcasing his unique style and talent for color.
Homer's watercolors executed between 1890 and 1894, largely Adirondack scenes, are now considered to be his finest in this medium. In 1911 the painter Kenyon Cox wrote of Homer's work, "in the end, he painted better in watercolors--with more virtuosity of hand, more sense of the right use of the material, more decisive mastery of its proper resources--than almost any modern has been able to do...The accuracy of his observation, the rapidity of his execution and the perfection of his technic [sic] increase together, and reach their highest value at the same moment. The one little square of paper becomes a true record of the appearance of nature, an amazing bit of sleight of hand, and a piece of perfect material beauty." (as quoted in Winslow Homer, p. 296)
This work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.