Winslow Homer's visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1880 was an important moment of experimentation and development in the artist's career, during which his lifelong fascination with the sea and fishermen found expression through new techniques in watercolor. Foreshadowing his compelling Cullercoats paintings from his influential 1881 trip to England and his later roiling ocean images of Prout's Neck, Maine, Homer's 1880 works, including Gloucester Harbor, Fishing Fleet, demonstrate the artist's intuitive and incomparable skill in depicting the play of light and color on the seacoast. With its beautiful washes of reds and blues and delicate renderings of sailboats, Gloucester Harbor, Fishing Fleet is a superb example of Homer's works from this time and their sense of peaceful escapism.
Homer first visited Gloucester in 1873, and, during this initial trip, he concentrated particularly on children at the seaside. He returned in 1880 with a distinctly different mindset and expanded focus. Rather than again renting a room in Atlantic House in Gloucester's West End, Homer chose to live in almost complete solitude, inhabiting a lighthouse on Ten Pound Island in the center of Gloucester Harbor. Surrounded on all sides by the calm waters and ships of the inlet and only rowing across the harbor to town when in need of supplies, Homer spent the summer in quietude, enraptured by his environment. Homer's biographer William H. Downes writes, "He knew plenty of nice people, but he associated with two fishermen, and preferred their company." (The Life and Works of Winslow Homer, Boston, 1911, p. 18)
Homer had also recently given up illustration, and the unique perspective from his isolation on the island assisted him in shifting his focus away from narrative scenes toward atmospheric depictions of the shipping culture which made Gloucester the nation's busiest port of call. D. Scott Atkinson expounds, "If one motif came to challenge the boys' dominance in the 1880 watercolors, it was the boats, and particularly the schooners, so conspicuously set against the horizon or harbor...In the drawings and watercolors of 1880, Homer not only acknowledged the importance of the schooner to the fishing port but understood how its beautiful form could be emblematic of this summer's compositions. Homer took such care in his representations that it is clear he is often delineating the architecture of a specific ship rather than a generic type. With his keen powers of observation, Homer became successor to Fitz Hugh Lane, who had accurately depicted ships in the harbor during the 1850s and sixties." (Winslow Homer in Gloucester, Chicago, Illinois, 1990, p. 51).
In Gloucester Harbor, Fishing Fleet, several schooners are depicted in small scale between open twilight sky and tranquil deep blue water. The lowered horizon line and scaling of the ships impresses upon the viewer the enormity and awesomeness of nature. Even here, Homer's attention to architectural detail is evidenced by the differences in the shape, size and number of sails on each diminutive yet individual ship. While some vessels appear to be lazily floating along, others have their sails curved by the wind pushing them across the harbor. The inclusion of pops of color, such as hints of red in the body of a few boats, adds to this sense of specificity within the panoramic view. The diagonal lines and paper white of the ships add visual interest to the otherwise hazy scenic composition, while the white gouache applied to create the crescent moon and its reflection creates an almost otherworldly glow within the scene and emphasizes the nocturnal aspect of twilight. The work is both a very specific representation of the famed schooners of Gloucester and an artistic meditation on coastal life.
Gloucester Harbor, Fishing Fleet is perhaps most notable for its delicately applied washes which blend with each other to mimic the changing colors of a dusky sky and the ripples of a calm harbor. As in Homer's best watercolors, the medium is applied so as to allow the white of the paper to shine through, particularly to create highlights and reflections in the water. Atkinson explains, "He had come to understand, since his first efforts in the medium in 1873, that the strength of watercolor lay not in its opaqueness but in its translucency." (Winslow Homer in Gloucester, p. 46) Writing about Homer's technical advances during his 1880 summer in Gloucester, Helen Cooper notes, "Homer's use of color took a great leap forward, and whole sheets became embodiments of a new found coloristic energy." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, pp. 72-73) The present work is an example of how Homer's minimal variety of pigments and experimentation with more free-form color blocking created innovative and beautiful atmospheric works.
The Gloucester works, such as Gloucester Harbor, Fishing Fleet, marked a moment of personal triumph for Homer. "If the summer 1873 was a period of nascent learning," writes 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, p. 53) As Cooper has emphasized, "To most of Homer's audience the largeness of conception and veracity of feeling made these watercolors the finest works he had yet shown in any medium." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 119).