The summer of 1880, the time Young Woman was executed, was one of great experimentation and productivity for Winslow Homer. 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 spent the summer painting the harbor and its inhabitants, exclusively working in watercolor. Homer also spent some of his time that summer along Long Island Sound. The present painting, Young Woman, depicts a lady strolling along the edge of the Sound with her playful dog in tow.
Helen A. Cooper writes, "In at least seven watercolors, among them Young Woman and Woman with Flower (1880, Private Collection), Homer rehearses the image of a woman, not in close-up as in the watercolors of the mid-1870s, but in the middle ground. Dressed in black, her delicate features and slight form are less individualized and distinct. Unlike the earlier juxtaposition of a large, carefully described foreground figure against a more freely painted landscape, in these watercolors Homer grants the figure and landscape equal importance by rendering both with similar brushwork. As in some of the earlier figure pieces, he integrates color and subject; here, however, the result is less deliberate and intimate. The woman has simply become one with the setting: her muted mood and delicate color...are echoed in the hazy light and tones of the landscape." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, Washington, D.C., 1986, p. 69)
Unlike the scenes Homer will later paint in so many of his English watercolors of fishermen and women battling the elements, the young woman in the present watercolor delights in a simple moment walking with her dog in the bright sun off the Long Island Sound coast. As Ms. Cooper noted, the woman and her dog indeed seem to have been given equal standing with the beautiful shore and sparkling water. Each are painted with care and respect. The lovely dressed woman in black is painted with grace and beauty as she looks down at her frisky dog. Also beautifully rendered, the beach has long, swaying grasses sprouting from the ground and majestic trees tower in the distance; a lone sailboat glides through the blue waters on the horizon.
While this work appears at first to be just a lovely scene of a woman on a beach, it also provides insight into his technical development, retaining delicately toned washes that typify Homer's best watercolors. Ms. Cooper notes, "the achievements of the summer of 1880 are found above all in watercolors distinguished by fluid, saturated washes, brilliant light, and reductiveness of composition. Light and color now fascinated Homer now more than ever, and in sheet after sheet he experimented with washes of various intensities." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 70)
In Young Woman, the water and sky are depicted with broad and gentle sweeps of watercolor with subtle variations of blue and white hues. He also uses this technique in the sand in the foreground and the green of the grass in the background. Homer uses this application of watercolor as no other artist did at the time. He combined fluid, transparent washes of color and juxtaposed them with vibrant colors. In this work, Homer has used short brush strokes with rich green colors of the beach grass and the foliage of the trees as well as the dashes of black to make up the woman's dress and dabs of color in the woman's face. The entire composition is unified by Homer's careful observation of light and atmosphere.
In Young Woman, Homer has painted a scene of great beauty and calmness as well as a work showcasing his unique style of watercolor and using his talent for color. Both the subject and techniques used by Homer in his watercolors of 1880 were recognized as a skilled and innovative use of his medium in creating simple, direct, and powerful compositions. They remain a body of work, which together constitutes a pivotal moment of his career as America's foremost painter in watercolor. Homer said of his fascination with light and color, "You must not paint everything you see, you must wait, and wait patiently, until the exceptional, the wonderful effect or aspect comes." (as quoted in Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 70)
This work will be included in the forthcoming Spanierman Gallery/CUNY/Goodrich/Whitney catalogue raisonné of the works of Winslow Homer.