The magnificent series of watercolors that Winslow Homer executed during his twenty-month stay in Cullercoats, England, is recognized as some of the artist's finest work. Between the summer of 1881 and the fall of 1882, Homer immersed himself in the daily life of that small town located on the northeast coast of England. Working almost exclusively in watercolor, Homer recorded the habits and routines of the townspeople, but more than anything else, he turned to the women of the area for his subjects. It was largely the fisherwomen who impressed the American artist and inspired him to produce some of the most poignant and compelling watercolors of his career.
Looking Out to Sea presents a small group of fisherwomen standing in front of a fishing boat on the beach. One woman bears a young child on her back. Their dress is subdued and the landscape is filled with a hazy, atmospheric light. 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 as well as the role that the fisherwomen played in the English coastal town.
Winslow Homer was immediately impressed by the forceful demeanor of the fisherwomen. Indeed, "No one could spend any time in the village without becoming aware of the special qualities of the fishermen and women. Ruggedly independent, they needed both endurance and courage, for they had to bear with and battle the elements for sustenance... .Like most everyone else who visited Cullercoats, Homer was drawn to the fisherwomen. 'Fair complexioned, sun-tanned, ruddy cheeks, with strong-built but supple forms,' they were famous for their beauty. They were, as one writer put it, 'the great feature of the place.'" (H. Cooper, Winslow Homer Watercolors, Washington, DC, 1986, p. 116)
The average woman in Tynemouth had an impressively active daily routine. "Not only did the complete care of the family fall to them, but its prosperity was largely dependent on their ability to sell the fish the men caught. As the men slept, the fisherwomen worked throughout the day. They searched for bait, dug for sand worms, or gathered mussels, limpets, and dogcrabs from the rocks. They assisted in the baiting of hooks, helped to push the boats into the often icy waters at sunset, and pulled them in again at five or six in the morning when they returned laden with fish. The fisherwoman was described as healthy and powerful; her ways, modest and restrained." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 117) Homer not only depicts the pretty faces of the young fisherwomen, but he makes overt references to their noble duties by including silhouettes of other women working in the middle distance. One appears to bend over a large wicker basket (or creel) from which fisherwomen sold the catch. In the foreground, a child rests peacefully in its mother's care. The dress of the women, while picturesque, also serves to delineate the women's solid vertical forms.
While Homer's watercolors from the late 1870s exhibit blockier forms and a broad handling of the medium, his Cullercoats pictures demonstrate a movement toward more refined and carefully articulated shapes. In general "he rejected minute detail, excessive control, and tight handling--techniques contrary to the natural properties of the medium, although used by many highly praised contemporary watercolorists." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, pp. 111-112) Looking Out to Sea reveals his continuing development at this early point in his stay in Cullercoats, yet Homer successfully combines aspects of both techniques. Like his earlier watercolors, the beach and sky are depicted with broad and gentle sweeps of watercolor, and he suggests another figural group with blocks of gray wash in the left of the work. On the right, a fisherman walks along the sea with a purposeful stride. Behind him Homer depicts a second boat sailing toward the beach indicating that the scene takes place at morning, when the previous night's catch is brought into shore. The figural group in the foreground is rendered in a more delicate manner, with great attention to detail in scarves and ribbons, dresses and footwear. The buoyant spirit of the work--from the presence of the young child to the hazy sun, is highly characteristic of his early Cullercoat watercolors.
Apart from the deft manipulation of watercolor, the Cullercoats pictures were embraced because they were noble portraits of hardworking simple people. They received favorable reviews from the very beginning. "Despite Homer's reputation as a bold and unconventional artist, the Cullercoats watercolors surprised the picture-viewing public. Although well within a traditional European mode, to most Americans these fisherfolk scenes were unique. The critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer wrote: 'The most complete and beautiful things he has yet produced, [and] among the most interesting American art has yet created. They are, to begin with, pictures in the truest sense, and not mere studies or sketches, like most of his earlier aquarelles... The dignity of these landscapes and the statuesque impressiveness and sturdy vigor of these figures, translated by the strong sincerity of his brush, prove an originality of mood, a vigor of conception, and a sort of stern poetry of feeling to which he had never reached before.'" (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 119)
Distinct as a group, yet characteristic of Homer's great facility with watercolor, all of his Cullercoats watercolors are exceptional in their universal appeal. Once he returned to the United States, Homer used oil more often as a medium that he did in England. However, it was not because he was unsuccessful with watercolor. In fact, an 1883 show of his work in watercolor prompted a reviewer from the Boston Evening Transcript to write the following passage: "Homer is both the historian and poet of the sea-coast life... The whole gamut of watercolor power, from the richness of elemental life depth and vividness to the density of storm darkness and human woe, and thence again to life light, joyousness, delicacy and subtle glow, is here run with a strength and accuracy that few not seeing will believe it capable of. Indeed it seems to proclaim its capacity to be perhaps the most artistic of all mediums when adequately handled." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 119)
This watercolor will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonn of the works of Winslow Homer.