Whether it was in Gloucester, Prouts Neck or Cullercoats, wherever Winslow Homer lived, he closely observed the local traditions and made them the subject of his work. The watercolors that Homer executed in 1884-85 on an extended trip to Nassau speak volumes about the atmosphere and daily life of the secluded tropical island at the time.
By the time Homer arrived, Nassau's reputation as an exotic tropical getaway had already developed. Indeed, "Nassau was becoming a popular tourist resort, much praised for its beautiful setting and temperate climate. Travel guides to the Bahamas were published in London and New York throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and popular periodicals such as Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Monthly regularly carried articles extolling the virtues of the so-called Isles of Eden. The Bahamas offered trees that were ever green, flowers always in bloom, tropical fruit in abundance, and, for Americans, a common language." (H.A. Cooper, Winslow Homer Watercolors, Washington, DC, 1986, p. 130)
As he was accustomed to, Homer shied away from the tourist attractions that were so popular in the Bahamas, and sought out the most unsentimental and authentic side of daily life in Nassau. However, because of its idyllic setting and balmy weather, life in Nassau is naturally picturesque. Whether Homer captured women on their way to market or men diving for sponge, his watercolors were infused with vivid color and sparkling light.
Homer was attracted to the seafaring life that he found during his travels throughout his life, and Nassau was no exception. Similar to the hardworking, labor-intensive fishing communities Homer found in Gloucester, Prouts Neck and Cullercoats were the sponge fishermen and the community that surrounded them in Nassau. "Sponge was the colony's major export and most important industry during the nineteenth century. Collecting sponge was an arduous task; it was taken from the ocean bottom with long iron hooks, usually by black men who shipped out on specifically built wooden schooners with attached dinghies for the five-to-eight-week expedition. Bred to the sea, the sponge fishermen endured dreadful living and working conditions under a pitiless sun. When the boats came in, the women sorted, cleaned, clipped, and packed the sponge in the long sponge exchange building located along the Nassau wharf. This division of labor -- the men going out to sea, the women collecting and processing the catch -- was not unlike that which Homer had found in Cullercoats. Again, as in Cullercoats, he preferred to paint views of daily life and tasks, ignoring the tourists and the more picturesque aspects of the local scene. Of the thirty-three known watercolors he produced during this two-month stay, most portray the black population. And these men and women appear within the context of their own environment -- not in relation to white visitors." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, pp. 132-3)
The subject of sponge fishing provided Homer with an ideal means to depict the extraordinary landscape of Nassau while providing factual information about the island. As such, they have become some of his most celebrated works. "In both subject and technique, Homer's scenes of the local sponge industry define his Bahamas work. The palette of Sponge Fishing, Nassau . . . [is] brighter, the washes more and more transparent. One also sees a greater exploitation of accidental effects, and an increased suggestiveness, fluidity, and freedom of brushwork. In Sponge Fishing, Nassau, Homer shows a view of the wharf from the water, looking toward the shore with the buildings of Nassau in the hazy distance. A small fishing boat, loaded with brown-gold sponges, pulls up to the wharf. As white men in black hats and jackets (presumably the buyers) look on, the straw-hatted black fishermen unload their cargo onto the dock. Within a composition of parallel horizontal elements which he further emphasized by trimming the paper to a more emphatic lateral format, Homer used a paint-loaded brush to drop pools of color - black, brown, red, blue and green - over brief graphite outlines to suggest the bustling activity on the wharf. Against a blue sky almost completely obscured by pale gray and white clouds, watery strokes of gray and green form the palm trees, while the blinding white light of a Caribbean morning reflecting off the glittering sea is achieved through reserved paper." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, pp. 134-5)
Of all of Homer's travels, the Bahamas were certainly the most exotic and with their vibrant palette and uncommon imagery, the series of watercolors that Homer produced in the Bahamas has consistently captured the attention of collectors since they were painted. They also reveal more about the artist himself, indeed, "the most telling proof of Homer's warmer nature is to be found in the glorious watercolor of the last twenty-five years of his life. They present such a departure from the character of his Maine oils that they must appear as joyous statements made when the artist, freed from his commitment to paint exhibition pieces, simply relaxed on holiday." (D.F. Hoopes, Winslow Homer Watercolors, New York, 1969, p. 18)
This work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.