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Winslow Homer’s long love affair with the sea

Renowned 19th century American artist Winslow Homer began his journey in marine painting with a trip to Europe, following his well-known work documenting the frontlines of the Civil War as an illustrator. But it was back in the U.S., and specifically on the shores of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Homer became “enchanted” with land, sea and sky. Jared Bowen of PBS station WGBH in Boston reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And finally tonight, the mysterious meeting of land, sea, and sky through the eyes of 19th century American artist Winslow Homer.

    Special correspondent Jared Bowen examines at an exhibit of the landscape painter's enchantment with seascapes.

    It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Many an artist has heard the siren call of the sea. For Winslow Homer, it would change his life.

  • Bill Cross:

    We think of him today principally as a marine painter. Until age 33, though, he had never shown a marine painting.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Until then, Homer had been a well-known illustrator who'd captured the Civil War from the front lines. He was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was a New Yorker by the time he found the sea as a painter in 1869.

    He was enchanted, says curator Bill Cross.

  • Bill Cross:

    The times of day, the times of tide, storms washing in and washing out, the mysterious meeting of land sea and sky was alluring to him, as it is to us.

  • Oliver Barker:

    We have been able to assemble 51 works by Homer here at the Cape Ann Museum.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Oliver barker is the director of the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, where Homer at the Beach commemorates the 150th anniversary of the artist as a marine painter.

  • Oliver Barker:

    We know he came here on four separate occasions, initially to Manchester and then three separate occasions to Gloucester. And so it wasn't accidental.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Homer initially sought out the sea up and down the East Coast. In New Jersey, he found heavily populated beaches, with crowds in wool bathing costumes like this one.

    But as he moved north, Homer found vastly different vistas. He discovered industry in a Gloucester shipyard and the solitude of rock-strewn beaches.

  • Oliver Barker:

    He was very inspired by the ordinary people of Gloucester. I think, as time went on, he started to show some of the beauty of the surrounding areas. There are these glorious sunsets.

  • Jared Bowen:

    This is the first marine painting Homer ever exhibited, inspired by Singing Beach in Manchester. It went on view in New York. And, says curator Bill Cross, the critics hated it.

  • Bill Cross:

    He received disdain because he was ahead of his time.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Homer had embarked on his marine painting after a lengthy trip to France, where he was exposed to all that was new in European painting, photography and Japanese prints, none of which had yet taken hold in America.

  • Bill Cross:

    Homer was using diffuse light, had little narrative content. And the critics wanted less sketchy paintings. They wanted a work that included figures.

  • Jared Bowen:

    The hostile reviews continued with these two works called Low Tide. But, here, Homer's response was equally hostile and physical.

    I know this is a trick question, but one painting or two?

  • Bill Cross:

    Both.

    (LAUGHTER)

    Homer made his most ambitious painting based on his visits to Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1869, and exhibited that, to scorn.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Scorn from the critics?

  • Bill Cross:

    Scorn from the critics.

    He removed the painting from the exhibition before the exhibition ended and took his own knife to it, dismembered the painting, and turned it into two works. Only once before in U.S. history have these two paintings been brought together in this way.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Part of the beauty of Homer's works, the light, the glint of the sea, and even a lot of the landscapes are still as they were.

    Living on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor, Homer painted some 100 watercolors over one summer. Today, he's known as one of the best watercolorists ever. But he had a profound role model, his mother.

  • Bill Cross:

    She exhibited her watercolors in New York before he did. And when he exhibited his watercolors for the first time, she was in the same exhibition.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Cross says the 11 years of works in these galleries are tantamount to an artist in a process of self-discovery, one that would result in the most significant works of his career.

    What made some of the greatest works?

  • Bill Cross:

    He was discovering these places in himself through the application of three essential lessons, travel widely, experiment boldly, and love deeply.

  • Jared Bowen:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen of WGBH in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

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