In style and subject matter, Sailing a Dory exemplifies Winslow Homer's finest work in watercolor. During the 1870s and also in 1880, just prior to his trip to Cullercoats, England from 1881 to 1882, Homer concentrated his efforts on genre painting -- especially depictions of children engaged in all manner of activities, including work and play. In Sailing a Dory, completed in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1880, Homer returned to this theme, painting a boy standing in a boat which drifts quietly under sail on a calm day.
The painting is similar to numerous other paintings of 1880, perhaps most notably to Two Boys Rowing (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts), which depicts a nearly identical dory, the sail struck, with two boys seated with their oars dipped in the water. As before, boys continued to be an important element in many of Homer's watercolors in 1880, but with a distinct compositional shift in emphasis. "The boys of the second Gloucester summer seem more completely subsumed by their environment," writes D. Scott Atkinson, "relegated to a single element integrated within the panorama of the town and harbor, and enveloped in a silvery natural light."(D. Scott Atkinson, Winslow Homer in Gloucestor, Chicago, Illinois, 1990, p. 50) The boy depicted in Sailing a Dory has a dreamy, other-worldly quality. Unlike the scenes Homer will later paint in so many of his English watercolors of fishermen and women battling the elements, this young man enjoys a moment of calm and contemplation in the hazy sun of the Atlantic coast.
Sailing a Dory retains delicately toned washes that typify Homer's best watercolors. The reflections that dominate the foreground are filled with varied washes of blues. He has used innovative techniques such as sponging and scraping to animate the surface of the sheet. This technique effectively evokes the gentle movement and shimmer of the water and the canopy of blue sky overhead. Homer has enlivened his dramatic tonal coloring with subtle, brilliant touches of orange and yellow, especially in the delicate mast and its reflection, and the straw-colored hat on the boy's head. To formulate the figure, Homer first carefully drew in pencil and then painted the delicate tones. The entire composition is unified by Homer's careful observation of light and atmosphere.
The summer of 1880 was one of great experimentation and productivity for Winslow Homer. That year 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. Sailing a Dory is one of many nautical subjects that Homer produced that summer. By 1880, Homer had given up illustration and devoted much of his attention to depicting light and atmosphere in his paintings. Using washes of paint, and creating a dramatic pattern of white sails against the horizon, Homer gives the viewer a vivid sense of his surroundings and the feeling of the seacoast that so greatly affected him.
Writing about Homer's technical advances during his time in Gloucester, Helen Cooper notes that in the summer of 1880 "Homer's use of color took a great leap forward, and whole sheets became embodiments of a new found coloristic energy....Simplifying his palette to Prussian blue, cobalt, vermillion, yellow ocher, and black and selecting a heavily grained wove watercolor paper, Homer began each watercolor study over the barest graphite sketch, relying on color alone, blocking the principal masses and tones, and accomplishing the overall structure of the composition in color rather than in line." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, Washington, D.C., 1986, pp 72-3)
Both the subject and techniques used by Homer in his watercolors of 1880 came under attack by the critics. But while many wrote of the "two-dimensional" and "sketchy" quality of these works, others recognized in them Homer's skilled and innovative use of his medium in creating simple, direct, and powerful compositions. "If the summer of 1873 was a period of nascent learning," writes one art historian," 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) They remain a body of work which together constitutes a pivotal moment of his career as America's foremost painter in watercolor.
This watercolor will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.