Hudson River Museum

Yonkers, NY


Photo: Quesada/Burke


Americans Outdoors: Seasonal Prints by Winslow Homer

June 15 - September 23, 2001


Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was perhaps the most famous illustrator of his day, earning his living as a designer of wood engravings for the first 18 years of his career. The Museum now owns over 100 of Homer's prints for the periodical Harper's Weekly, due to a recent gift by Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Lefcourt. Americans Outdoors presents a selection of these, highlighting the artist's astute and charming observations of Americans at work and play in the great outdoors. (left: Winslow Homer, Summer in the Country, Appleton's Journal, July 10, 1869, Inventory #0939)

Two of Homer's earliest prints, The Bathe at Newport and Skating at Boston (both 1858), foretell his later preoccupation with social activities and recreation, but in 1861 Harper's dispatched him to cover the Civil War. In prints such as Holiday in Camp-Soldiers Playing "Foot-ball" (1865), Homer reveals his interest in everyday scenes of camaraderie away from the battlefield.

Many of Homer's later wood engravings, such as Snap the Whip (1873), relate to his paintings. Having established his reputation, he could contribute themes of his own choosing, and he favored middle class leisure activities and genial aspects of rural life. These subjects were timely and resonated with his audience and, in fact, publicized his work in oil and watercolor. His images of young ladies riding horses, swimming or hiking display a new type of energetic, carefree woman quite opposite to the demure beauty of pre-Civil War days. Also from this era are Raid on a Sandswallow Colony (1874) and the other "children's series" prints, as well as scenes of men camping and hunting based on his own summer trips to the Adirondack Mountains.

Despite Homer's great success at illustration, he made a conscious decision to pursue painting as his main focus and, in fact, became one of America's great masters. Today, he is equally revered as a consummate graphic artist, whose best engravings bridge the gap between commercial work and fine art.

Excerpts from wall text panels of the exhibition follow:


Main panel / Americans Outdoors: Seasonal Prints by Winslow Homer

Considered by some to be America's greatest painter, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was also one of the most famous and prolific illustrators of his day. He earned his living as a freelance designer of wood engravings for the first 18 years of his career. Americans Outdoors presents a selection of these, highlighting the artist's astute and charming observations of Americans at work and play in each season. (left: Winslow Homer (1836-1910), On the Road to Lake George, July 24, 1869, Wood Engraving in Appleton's Journal, Coll. Hudson River Museum)

Throughout his life, Homer concentrated on depicting the outdoors, whether in paint or print. In his early career, he often found subjects on the streets of Boston or New York. Later, he traveled in the summers, basing his prints on watercolors painted in the Catskills, Adirondacks, Long Branch, NJ, and Gloucester, MA. His topics -- from his early Civil War coverage to seaside resorts, ice-skating and the cult of childhood -- were timely and resonated with his audience.

The graphic composition of Homer's drawing style lent itself well to being engraved and his best illustrations bridge the gap between commercial work and fine art. The published engravings based on his oils and watercolors cemented his fame as an artist; and after 1875 he concentrated on painting.

All of the works on view are wood engravings by Winslow Homer, from the collection of The Hudson River Museum. College Life, Soldiers Playing Football and Snap the Whip are intro pieces in the hall landing.


Wood Engraving

Winslow Homer worked as an illustrator during the height of American wood engraving. A commercial wood engraving was the result of collaboration between an artist and a professional engraver. The success of a print depended on the engraver's skill in translating the artist's design, submitted on paper or drawn directly on the block. Artist James Kelly recalled once seeing Homer conferring with the art editor at Harper's, reviewing and reworking his drawing on the block.

Wood engraving was an ideal medium for illustrations in books and periodicals. While offering finer detail, metal-plate engravings could not be printed on the same press with typeset text because the ink was held in recessed grooves. Like typesetting, wood engraving was a relief process -- the lines to be printed remained after the areas in between were cut away. Engraving on the fine end grain of boxwood produced works of greater finesse than traditional woodcuts carved into the coarse long grain. Boxwood blocks were small, but could be combined to produce full-page illustrations. Electroplating increased the durability for large print runs.

In the 1880s, photomechanical printing methods eliminated the need for engravers. The resulting illustrations were reproductions rather than traditional prints.

Much had been said about the fact that Winslow Homer's wood engravings were generally not illustrations in the true sense of the word. In fact, magazine editors frequently began any appended text with comments such as the above notation. While some of his images related to stories or poems, most were accompanied by editorial remarks about the scene or relevant current events.

As Homer's reputation grew, he contributed topics of his own choosing, and numerous prints appeared independent of any commentary. At the same time, Homer was an elusive artist and silent on the content of his art, yet the anecdotal detail in these "illustrations" allowed viewers to formulate their own stories.


Wall text for College Life in New England: The Match between the Sophs and the Freshmen, Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1857, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Lefcourt, 2000.05.01

This is Winslow Homer's first layout for Harper's Weekly. In the mid 19th century, commercial printing workshops were one of the better ways to learn practical art skills. Before becoming a freelance illustrator, Homer had gained valuable experience as an apprentice at J. Bufford's Lithography Shop in his native Boston. By 1857 he was working on his own, designing wood engravings for the Boston publication Ballou's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion and the new Harper's Weekly, published in New York City. Perhaps motivated by Harper's steady rise in popularity, Homer moved to New York in 1859.

Homer's work in printmaking coincided with a sudden increase in illustrated literature. Steam printing presses, factory-made paper and the use of wood engravings-combined with higher rates of literacy-created an explosion of inexpensive books, magazines and newspapers using pictures to help tell their stories. New periodicals also included Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Every Saturday, Appleton's Journal, and Harper's Bazar -- all of which featured Homer's work.


Wall text for Holiday in Camp-Soldiers Playing "Foot-ball," Harper's Weekly, July 15, 1865, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Lefcourt, 2000.05.50

In 1861 Harper's Weekly dispatched Homer to cover the Civil War. In prints such as Holiday in Camp-Soldiers Playing "Foot-ball" (1865), he shows interest in everyday scenes of raucous camaraderie away from the battlefield.

The demand for current news created by the Civil War contributed greatly to the growth of pictorial journalism in the United States. Homer became known for his war images, from battle charges and camp life to wartime activities in New York City. At the same time he began to paint, submitted paintings of the war to exhibitions, and was elected a member of the National Academy of Design in 1865.


Wall text for Snap the Whip, Harper's Weekly, September 20, 1873, Gift of George Abraham, 88.9.1

A comparison between this scene and the two other earlier pieces in this gallery reveals the degree of compositional and descriptive sophistication Homer evolved in his years of graphic production. Over time, he simplified and strengthened the elements of his pictures, reducing form and narrative to their bare essentials. This increased the impact of his images.

Snap the Whip and most of Homer's other Harper's engravings of the 1870s relate to his oil and watercolor paintings. Subjects such as a noon recess at this rural schoolhouse were fueled by the nation's post-Civil War nostalgia for simpler times.


Wall text for The Artist in the Country, June 19, 1869, Wood Engraving from Appleton's Journal, Coll. Hudson River Museum, Inventory #0938)

Harper's Weekly rarely credited its wood engravers for specific illustrations, but Appleton's allowed them to sign the block. This print was engraved by John Karst, a skilled craftsman who worked for a number of publications. (left: Winslow Homer (1836-1910), The Artist in the Country, June 19, 1869, Wood Engraving from Appleton's Journal, Coll. Hudson River Museum, Inventory #0938)


Wall text for Clam Bake, Harper's Weekly, August 23, 1873, Inventory #0956

This is the season for clam-bakes and chowder parties; and happy are they who can find leisure and opportunity to escape for a few hours from the restraints and heat and dust of the city for a run to the sea-side and indulgence in the pleasures which our artist has depicted in the spirited illustrations. There is something mysterious in the attractions of the sea-side. Everybody feels it, but few can explain, even to themselves, the irresistible influence which draws them to a hot and sandy beach in preference to their shady groves, where the grass spreads a soft carpet for the feet and the boughs extend a cool canopy overhead. But, from whatever source it springs, the attraction is undeniable, and the water-sirens who sing "Come unto these yellow sands" never sing in vain.

Harper's Weekly, August 23, 1873


Wall text for Gloucester Harbor, Harper's Weekly, September 27, 1873, Inventory #0958

GLOUCESTER, of whose beautiful harbor we give an illustration, lies on the south side of the peninsula of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and is chiefly noted for its immense fishing interests. It has a greater amount of tonnage employed in domestic fisheries than any other town in the United States. During the recent storms, which swept the New England coasts with severe losses, and hundreds of families in the town were thrown into mourning. Gloucester was first occupied as a fishing station in 1624, being the earliest settlement made on the north shore of Massachusetts Bay. Its harbor is one of the best on the coast, and is accessible at all seasons for vessels of the largest class.

Harper's Weekly, September 27, 1873


Wall text for The Morning Walk, Young Ladies School Promenading the Avenue, Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1868, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Lefcourt, 2000.05.58

Among the many pleasing customs in vogue in this country is the "Morning Walk" or "Exercise" of the young ladies in attendance on our many boarding-schools and academies; and such scenes as that portrayed are daily to be seen in various localities when the season will admit such exercise Our artist has represented one of the many schools of New York city, under the lead of the teacher, passing through Madison Square. There are frequently to be seen at a time thirty or forty of these young and beautiful girls, representatives of the well-known and fashionable schools

Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1868

Selected articles regarding the art of Winslow Homer from this magazine:

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Hudson River Museum.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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