Florida Jungle of 1886 is a superb example of Winslow Homer's exploration of nature through the media of watercolor. "You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors," said Homer prophetically to a friend, and indeed since then the artist's watercolors have been ranked among the greatest and most enduring achievements in American art. Helen Cooper writes, "Executed over a period of more than thirty years, between 1873 and 1905, these works are unsurpassed for their direct statement, luminosity, and economy of means. . . In oil, Homer's touch was powerful, exploiting the weight and density of the medium. In watercolor, it was exquisite, full of sensuous nuance. The liquid pigment called forth in him a private and poetic vision that otherwise found no place in his art. Suffused with a special awareness of the beauty of nature, the fluid, audacious brushwork and saturated color of the mature works in particular have had a wide and liberating influence on much subsequent American watercolor painting." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 16)
Portraying a palmetto filled landscape thickly hung with Spanish moss, Homer executed Florida Jungle in 1886, on his first trip to Florida. In the mid-1880s Florida was becoming a winter destination and between 1885 and 1909, Homer made seven trips to Florida, primarily to fish. Only on three visits did he paint in watercolor: 1885-86, 1890 and 1903. On his first tour Homer may have traveled by steamship, probably the Mallory Steam Ship Line from New York, which was the line recommended by almost every guidebook to the state. He would have arrived in Jacksonville, where the line ended, then crossed to Tampa and the gulf coast by train in December 1885 before heading southward, sailing to Key West in January 1886--these were all areas known for their abundance of fish. By late February, Homer returned to Jacksonville where he celebrated his fiftieth birthday on February 24th. In these relaxed and inspired settings, eschewing the tourist areas and concentrating instead on the unoccupied landscapes and wildlife, Homer was able to capture the light, atmosphere and color of the state.
"But though Homer chose to depict similar subjects [as guidebook illustrations], he took a different vantage. Whereas guidebook illustrators usually provided the spectator with a safe spot from which to view the scene, Homer often placed him in a perilous natural environment--suspended above a body of water, plunged into brackish water beside an alligator or lifted into the fronds of a coconut palm. The manipulation of the viewpoint was one of Homer's most powerful devices for subtly heightening the emotional impact of a scene." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 154) In Florida Jungle, Homer depicts a palmetto jungle filled with tall trees, emphasized by the Spanish moss hanging from curved, horizontal tree branches, which act as a foil to the strong verticals. These works convey a relaxed, serene feeling that he clearly enjoyed while in Florida, a contrast from his intense watercolors of the same year painted at Prouts Neck, Maine.
Homer's rapidly painted watercolors executed in Florida demonstrate an advanced use of the medium with fluid and transparent washes. He uses long strokes of dilute gray to depict the moss dripping from the trees while contrasting shorter brushstrokes in saturated pigments of the dark green palms. The use of these pigments convey the humid quality of the scene. With watercolor, Homer was able to convey the atmosphere of a breezy, tropical day, unifying the entire composition. Homer uses this application of watercolor as no other artist did at the time. He has painted a watercolor of great beauty and peacefulness as well as a work showcasing his unique style and talent for color.
Of all of Homer's travels, his images of Florida and the Bahamas were certainly the most exotic and with their palette and uncommon imagery, the series of watercolors that Homer produced in these tropical environments have consistently captured the attention of collectors since they were painted. They also reveal more about the artist himself, indeed, "the most telling proof of Homer's warmer nature is to be found in the glorious watercolor of the last twenty-five years of his life. They present such a departure from the character of his Maine oils that they must appear as joyous statements made when the artist, freed from his commitment to paint exhibition pieces, simply relaxed on holiday." (D.F. Hoopes, Winslow Homer Watercolors, New York, 1969, p. 18)
This work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.