The magnificent series of watercolors Winslow Homer developed during the 1870s and 1880 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is recognized among the artist’s finest work. In 1880, the year Boy Hailing Schooners was painted, Homer immersed himself in the daily life of the coastal community and concentrated his efforts on recording the habits and routines of the townspeople, particularly the children. With its charming subject and delicate watercolor technique, the present work is a superb example of Homer's works from this time.
Boy Hailing Schooners marries two of the most important recurring themes of Homer’s career: the travails of boyhood and the lives of fisherfolk. Sharing similarities with his earlier farmyard scenes featuring boys, “His images of Gloucester children were part of a larger series of works, beginning in the late 1860s, in which he explored the theme of boyhood...The Gloucester boys represent a logical continuation of this investigation of childhood. They wear the same attire as their earlier counterparts—straw hats, cotton shirts, outgrown trousers—and very often have bare feet." (D.S. Atkinson, Winslow Homer in Gloucester, Chicago, Illinois, 1990, pp. 15-16) In the present work, this archetypal boy stands tall as he eagerly waves his straw hat at the departing ships. As Homer would later explore in more depth in Tynemouth, England and Prout’s Neck, Maine, “waiting and watching were central to the lives of the families and relations of Gloucester fishermen, as they were to the families and relations of fisherman everywhere. For that reason alone it is a central and recurrent theme in Homer's Gloucester watercolors.” (N. Cikovsky, Jr. and F. Kelly, Winslow Homer, New Haven, Connecticut, 1995, p. 136)
Beyond the charisma of his central figure, in Boy Hailing Schooners, Homer also pays particularly close attention to accurately capturing the details of the ships that were a constant sight along the Gloucester coast. D. Scott Atkinson writes, “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, p. 51)
These details within the composition come to life in Boy Hailing Schooners through Homer’s experimental watercolor technique, which came to full fruition during his 1880 summer in Gloucester. Using washes of pigment, blues, grays and reds blend together in the sky and rocks to create a perfect backdrop for the gleaming whites of the schooners and the boy’s hat. Atkinson declares, “If the summer of 1873 was a period of nascent learning, 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) Boy Hailing Schooners is one of the artist's most touching and refined realizations of this celebrated watercolor technique.