The magnificent series of watercolors that Winslow Homer developed during the 1870s and 1880 in Gloucester is recognized as some of the artist's finest work. In 1880, the year he painted Boys Fishing, Gloucester Harbor, Homer immersed himself in the daily life of the town located on the coast of Massachusetts, north of Boston. Concentrating his efforts on genre painting and working exclusively in watercolor, Homer recorded the habits and routines of the townspeople, but more than anything else, he turned to the children of the area for his subjects. They inspired Homer to produce some of the most poignant and original watercolors of his career.
Boys Fishing presents two boys in a rowboat drifting on a calm day. One pulls at the oars, while the second, seated in the stern, trails a hand line, pulled taught, in the water. The colors are subdued, with brushstrokes of blue defining the water and dabs of pink the boy's skin. While this work appears at first to be a straightforward description of the activities that Homer witnessed, it also provides insight into his technical development. Like his earlier watercolors, in Boys Fishing the water and sky are depicted with broad and gentle sweeps of watercolor. The figures are rendered in a more delicate manner, with only broad attention to detail in the boys' faces, hats, and the distant ships on the horizon. 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.
The summer of 1880 was one of great experimentation and productivity for the artist. That year, Homer had given up illustration and devoted much of his attention to depicting light and atmosphere in his paintings. He lived in almost complete solitude in a lighthouse on Ten Pound Island in the center of Gloucester Harbor, and he spent the summer painting the harbor and its inhabitants. The boats which populated Gloucester harbor held a particular interest for Homer; Boys Fishing is one of many boating subjects he produced as a result. Using washes of paint, and creating a dramatic pattern of white sails against the horizon, which is further accented with a plume of smoke from a steamship, Homer gives the viewer a vivid sense of his surroundings and the feeling of the seacoast that so greatly affected him.
Finally, these Gloucester works also marked a moment of personal triumph for the artist. "If the summer 1873 was a period of nascent learning," writes 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." 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 in Gloucester, Chicago, Illinois, 1990, p. 53; Winslow Homer Watercolors, p, 119).
This work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.