Winslow Homer occupies a prized place in the pantheon of American artists, beloved for his bright watercolor landscapes and tempestuous seascapes, as well as his depictions of soldiers during the Civil War, portrayals of African-American laborers in Virginia during the Reconstruction era, and his early illustrations of everyday New England life for Harper’s Weekly.
Indeed some regard him as the greatest American painter of the 19th century, as Met curator H. Barbara Weinberg noted in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. But does he deserve this accolade, in a century that also saw the development of the epic Hudson River School painters?
As neither a teacher nor a member of a defined artistic group, Homer doesn’t categorize easily. But his art remains enormously popular, and he has long been regarded as one of America’s early artist icons. “The late 19th century was historically seen as being dominated by six artists,” Katherine Manthorne, a professor of American art at the CUNY Graduate Center told me via email, “the so-called ‘national’ triumvirate of Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, who spent most of their time at home…and the ‘internationals’ John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Mary Cassatt, who were largely expats.”Six artists, each talented and renowned enough to merit inclusion in the country’s top tier of 19th-century painters—so what’s so special, and quintessentially American, about Winslow Homer?