He’s a superstar artist in the United States, revered for his powerful Civil War scenes and dramatic coastal storms, but Winslow Homer is hardly known in the UK. Even less well known is the importance of an English seaside village in making him the true great painter he has become.
The National Gallery will aim to correct that this year with the first in-depth exhibition of Homer’s art held in the UK.
He announced details of a major show telling the story of a famous person in the United States. “Every American is raised knowing their Winslow Homer imagery,” said Christopher Riopelle, curator of paintings at the National Gallery after 1800.
The exhibit will tell the story of his two years in Cullercoats, a fishing village on the coast between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth.
Homer made a name for himself as an integrated artist-reporter in the Union Army during the American Civil War, providing images for the monthly press.
He used these images in powerful paintings which, Riopelle said, “established him as someone who really spoke about America in the modern world. He was sort of telling Americans the truth about America.
It will never be known exactly why Homer decided in 1881, in his mid-forties, to move to Cullercoats.
One story goes that he met someone on the ship from the United States to Liverpool who told him that there was this place on the North Sea that had become a sort of artists’ colony and that he should take a look.
“I’m not sure it’s entirely believable,” Riopelle said. “He was looking for images of heroism in modern life and I think someone told him there were these rescue crews out there on the North Sea.”
He followed his nose and found the heroism he was looking for. If there was an emergency at sea overnight, Homer would watch the rescue teams come out, watching the women on the beach battered by wind and rain.
Homer made many small sketches of what he saw, mostly in watercolors.
“What’s fascinating about Cullercoats,” said Riopelle, “is that he doesn’t die when he leaves. Once back in America, it’s imagery that he keeps coming back to.
Critics quickly noticed that Homer’s style had changed. Riopelle said you can see Cullercoats in a great photo, The lifeline from 1884.
“Cullercoats showed him how he could find allegory in modern life,” said Riopelle.
The exhibition will include important images that Homer took in Cullercoats, or those that emerge directly from his time there. They include The Gale (1883), showing a woman alone on the shore wrapped in shawls as the wind blows around her.
When it was originally shown at the Royal Academy, it contained much more detail, including a ship. Later, “he took out all those anecdotal details and just narrowed them down to the woman on the shore in the storm who, you know … was getting out of it. He wanted to get to the point.
Another work of Cullercoats is Inside the bar, an 1883 watercolor on loan from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, co-organizer of the exhibition.
Today, no work by Homer exists in any British collection. The National Gallery attempted to acquire a sketch of Cullercoats a few years ago, but was outbid. “We got beaten up because of course Homer is a giant in America,” Riopelle said.
Homer, who liked to be seen as a silent Yankee, wrote a lot about him, including a lot of speculation. “When you write about him it’s absolutely impossible because he never said anything,” Riopelle said. “There is no trace of paper, no letters, nothing.”