Winslow Homer, Artist and Angler, at Amon Carter
By Stephan May
FORT WORTH, TEX. – If there was anything to equal Winslow Homer’s commitment to making art, it was his passion for the sport of fishing. Angling, particularly fly fishing, was the joy of his life. In fact, he once said that he would rather fish than paint — a remarkable admission by a man obsessed with creating art. He was undoubtedly the best angler among major American artists.
Throughout his career and particularly in the 1880s and beyond, America’s greatest artist traveled widely in search of fishing hot spots. More often than not, Homer (1836-1910) used his knowledge and observations in watercolors and a few paintings of angling situations that are unparalleled in our art history.
All this is documented in one of this year’s most appealing exhibitions, “: Winslow Homer, Artist and Angler.” Co-organized by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (where it was seen earlier this year) and the Amon Carter Museum (where it will be on view through June 29), this is the first show to look closely at this intriguing facet of Homer’s artwork.
Astutely curated by Patricia Junker, curator of American art at Amon Carter, in collaboration with art historian Sarah Burns of Indiana University, the show features some 50 works, primarily watercolors, many from private collections and not previously seen by the public. For fishing scenes Homer worked almost exclusively in watercolor, because it was easier to transport the equipment and the medium is best suited to capturing fleeting effects and instantaneous views.
As the show underscores, Homer’s fishing pictures are quite diverse, sited as they are in his favorite places to wet his line: the Adirondacks in northern New York, sites around Florida and two places in the province of Quebec. Infused with the artist’s first-hand expertise about the subject, they are also magical studies of light, atmosphere and natural beauty.
The excellent accompanying catalog documents how Homer’s fishing works energized his art, offered him the camaraderie of fellow angling aficionados and opened up new outlets for his art. Victorian-era sportsmen appreciated the artist’s grasp of the nature of the sport, his enthusiasm for it, and his ability to invoke new worlds of color, form and animation. For fishermen and art lovers alike today, “” offers a special treat.
Born and raised around Boston, Homer started out as a successful illustrator for publications such as Harper’s Weekly. Settling in New York, he took up oil painting and watercolors, depicting wholesome views of Americans at leisure and in rural settings.
After several years on England’s North Sea coast brought him face to face with the beauty and perils of the sea, in 1883 he closed his Manhattan studio and moved to a family compound at Prout’s Neck, Maine, a rocky promontory just south of Portland. There, confronted with the mighty Atlantic, his art became more serious, solid and profound, expressed in epic seascapes dramatically portraying the eternal clash between land and ocean.
For a change of pace, especially from harsh northern winters, Homer spent time almost every year, notably in the late 1880s and 1890s, at favorite fishing venues.
In her cataloged essay, curator Burns indicates a key to Winslow’s fishing obsession was his older brother Charles (1834-1917), who shared his love of the sport and also provided “critical emotional and financial support … throughout their lives.” A Harvard graduate who prospered as an industrial chemist, Charles was complemented by his wife Martha (Mattie), who was also close to Winslow, a bachelor.
Burns suggests in her detailed chapter that his “brotherly interdependence” stimulated the artist’s frequent depictions of paired boys and men. She says that “Crossing the Pasture,” an 1871-72 oil, showing two country boys going fishing, “offers an ideal vision of sibling relations, the elder boy guiding and shielding the younger.” While “not autobiographical,” it reflects the role Charles played as his younger brother’s “protector, supporter and confidante,” she writes.
Their most enduring tie was fishing, often pursued on joint camping and fishing excursions. They reveled in extended visits to sporting clubs to which they belonged in the Adirondacks and in Canada.
Out of their intimate experiences came Charles’s tribute to his brother’s fishing skills — that Winslow “did not go for expensive or elaborate tackle, but he usually caught the biggest fish.”
“In their low-key, Victorian, Yankee fashion, Charles and Winslow were the Theo and Vincent van Gogh of the American Nineteenth Century,” writes Burns. “[T]he angling paintings survive to tell us of this enduring relationship,” she observes.
An Adirondack painting, “Camp Fire,” 1877, showing two sportsmen relaxing around a glowing campfire, suggests their brotherly enjoyment of fishing trips into the woods. On close scrutiny this dark but dramatic canvas, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reveals fishing gear in the makeshift shelter.
The artist’s early excursions into the Adirondacks, starting in 1870, stimulated nostalgic views of camp life, studies of the experienced guides and burly woodsmen of the area, and charming views of carefree country lads trying their luck in ponds, like “Waiting for a Bite,” 1874. Over the course of 40 years Homer sojourned in the Adirondacks on more than 20 occasions.
Art curator/historian Theodore Stebbins, Jr, emphasizes in his catalog contribution, Homer “painted the Adirondacks, not as they were, but as they were said to have been.” The artist’s portrayal of an idealized, pristine paradise for sportsmen was a far cry from reality when he began to frequent the region. “In fact,” Stebbins writes, “the Adirondacks that the painter depicted had largely vanished by 1890, or were widely perceived to have vanished, under pressure from loggers on the one hand and tourists on the other.”
Homer’s focus on sport fishing intensified after 1889, when he and his brother began to spend several weeks most summers and falls at the North Woods Club, a private hunting and fishing preserve in Minerva, N.Y., in the Adirondacks. “The club was an exclusive one,” according to art historian Philip C. Beam, “intended to attract not the fashionable socialite, but those devoted sportsmen who loved hunting and fishing and did not mind rough living and the long ride by buckboard into wild country.” At the time, the trip from New York by boat, train and horse and buggy took a day and a half. The club is still in operation.
Working out of doors in watercolor, Homer captured dramatic views of vaulting trout, of fishermen fly casting from canoes and rocks, and anglers netting fish from boats in still ponds or rippling streams. Particularly memorable are depictions of silver fish exploding from the water, mouths agape, in pursuit of lures, as in “Jumping Trout,” 1889, and “Leaping Trout,” 1889. In a break with tradition, Homer made the fish the hero of these animated scenes.
A more tranquil view of one of his favorite fishing sites was offered in the particularly lovely “Mink Pond,” 1891, in which a brilliantly hued sunfish confronts a bug-eyed frog.
Homer delighted in depicting the long and limber fishing rods of the day in action, their curved arcs reflecting the strain as fish were pulled in. In “Playing Him (The North Woods),” 1894, a smartly dressed angler in a canoe works to secure his catch. In “Boy Fishing,” 1892, a local lad in a boat nets his catch with his rod bending gracefully above him. In each case Homer also captured the natural beauty of tree-lined bodies of water.
“The Rapids, Hudson River, Adirondacks,” 1894, appears at first glance to be an animated evocation of surging waters of the mighty river and its lumber-strewn shoreline, until you notice the long, curving loop of the fisherman’s line being cast by an unseen hand at the left.
After a time, seeking even wilder settings and new angling challenges, the Homer brothers ventured north to the Canadian province of Quebec, an increasingly popular destination for serious American sportsmen. In 1893 they became members of the Tourilli Fish and Game Club in the southern Laurentide Mountains. Located on the Tourilli River amid forests and mountains, it was a good jumping off place for gentlemen anglers to pursue trout in streams, lakes and ponds. Burns speculates that the club and “the idyllic lakes and rivers of Quebec may have constituted the supreme fishing experience for Charles and Winslow.”
Their second favorite fishing site was much further north near the turbulent outlet of Lake St John, called the Grand Discharge, and the wild Saguenay River. This place was open to a diverse collection of anglers and offered the challenge of trying to hook landlocked salmon — ouananiche — unknown in the United States.
A number of watercolors were set in the fast-running waters around Lake St John, which tested the strength and skill of the guides who maneuvered canoes through turbulent, even precarious, situations. Also featured were the spectacular fish that could be caught in these challenging conditions. Says art historian David Tatham of these works, “the setting is wilder, the fishermen and guides more active, the fish bolder, and the watercolor technique freer to a breathtaking degree,” than prior images of angling in the Adirondacks.
In “A Good Pool, Saguenay River,” 1895, a brilliantly brushed watercolor from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, a French-Canadian and an Indian guide paddle as the fortunate angler hooks an enormous salmon.
The crashing white water and swift current in “Under the Falls, the Grand Discharge, Lake St John, P.Q.,” 1895, loaned by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, highlight the skill of the paddlers and the fisherman as they work together to take in their prey. Says Tatham, the fisherman “is surely Charles.”
Other breathtakingly beautiful watercolors, such as “Canoe in the Rapids,” 1871, “Fishing the Rapids,” 1902, and “Shooting the Rapids,” 1902, also convey the excrdf_Descriptionent and challenge of maneuvering through and fishing in the foaming rapids. As contemporary critics observed, there was a “bigness,” and genius, in the manner in which Homer captured fishing adventures in Quebec.
In contrast to the surging waters of the northern Quebec fishing pictures is a series of lovely, serene monochromatic watercolors that Homer painted in 1895. Featuring guides from the Tourilli Club casting their lines on quiet lakes surrounded by trees, they are highlighted by “Trout Fishing, Lake St John, Quebec,” 1895, and “Two Men in a Canoe,” 1895. Precisely delineated in muted browns, grays and blacks, these are highly appealing, evocative works.
While quibbling about some details of Homer’s fishing depictions, fly-fishing historian Paul Schullery writes in the catalog how impressed he is with the artist’s real angling knowledge and his ability to convey his experiences in aesthetically pleasing pictures. “As long as there are fly fishers, and as long as they are the least bit reflective about the beauty of their sport and its environs,” he writes, “Homer will most assuredly live among them.”
In 1886, at the age of 50, Homer made his first trip to Florida, already a Mecca for anglers. As an avid fly fisherman, he concentrated on angling for tropical game fish — channel bass, largemouth black bass, mangrove snappers and sea trout — found in inland waters. “These Florida fish,” writes Junker, “could provide fly fishermen with some of the most challenging and rewarding sport to be found anywhere.”
The warm weather, beautiful surroundings and comfortable hotels offered added inducements to Homer and other northern sportsmen. Over the course of a quarter century he traveled to the Sunshine State on at least seven occasions.
During his initial excursions Homer fished on the St John’s River at Enterprise, a central Florida venue well-known to anglers. He stayed at the Brook House hotel, frequented for years by a favorite uncle who was a passionate fisherman. Homer adapted his techniques to record the dense and swampy coves in the area and to reflect its tropical atmosphere.
An early subject was “Thornhill Bar,” 1886, portraying a prominent sandbar on nearby Thornhill Lake, known as a top fishing spot. A few years later he recorded the remarkable mirror effects on the smooth surface of the placid lake, deftly depicting what Junker calls “the hallucinatory efforts of reflections,” in the beautifully composed “St John’s River, Florida,” 1890. It is a prized possession of the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y.
Homer also spent time in Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West — as well as the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cuba — but over the long run his favorite southern fishing venue was Homosassa, Fla., located some 80 miles north of Tampa near the Gulf Coast.
Much less commercial than Enterprise, Homosassa had been developed as a modest fishing resort by northern anglers led by Civil War hero Joshua L. Chamberlain, a fellow Maine resident. His Homosassa Inn attracted the likes of John Jacob Astor and Grover Cleveland, yet the area remained a small, simple enclave, catering to fishing enthusiasts.
“The fishing, the climate, the simple accommodations, the [laid back] people — it seems everything about Homosassa appealed to Homer,” writes Junker in her excellent essay. Home wrote his younger brother Arthur that the “Fishing [here] is the best in America as far as I can find.”
Inspired by the good fishing for black bass, channel bass (“looks like a new $20 gold piece,” he said), sea trout and sheepshead, Homer completed some of his finest angling pictures. He captured the thorn-filled, impenetrable river banks along which anglers flourished in the appropriately titled “Homosassa Jungle in Florida,” 1904, and “Red Shirt, Homosassa, Florida,” 1904.
His culminating watercolors — portraits of fighting fish — are, says Junker, “arguably Homer’s most stunning achievement in the trophy picture genre.” Melding years of fishing experience, highly developed skills as a watercolorist, flair for dramatic composition and affinity for the sun-splashed color, vegetation and sultry atmosphere of the area, these are masterpieces of technique and observation. “Channel Bass, Florida,” 1905, from the Metropolitan Museum, is a particular standout. “Spotted Weakfish (Sea Trout), Homosassa, Florida for Mrs R.A. Watts,” 1905, from the collection of Graham D. Williford, one of Homer’s last watercolors, has great charm.
Homer wintered in Homosassa in 1905, 1908 and 1909, but by this time, his health deteriorating, he was content merely to fish. “At Homosassa,” observers Junker, “he had found the equivalent of life at Prout’s Neck, Maine, a life of simplicity, a life close to nature.” As he wrote about Florida to his brother Charles on the eve of his 73rd birthday, “The place suits me as if made for me by a kind of providence.” Concludes Junker, “Simply put, Florida was a gift, a divine gift.”
When he died in his Prout’s Neck studio home in 1910, Homer was surrounded by unfinished paintings and his beloved fishing gear.
Over the years, many artists have painted fishing scenes, but none has equaled Homer. William H. Gerdts’s comprehensive catalog chapter on the history of American fishing art underscores the superiority of Homer’s angling work over that of other fisherman-artists.
Pictures of lasting appeal and power, Homer’s fishing views are superbly showcased in this usefully focused exhibition. Kudos to curator Junker and her colleagues for bringing together this thoroughly delightful and insightful show.
The exhibition catalog is superb in both words and illustrations. There are well-written and informative essays by Junker and Burns, by art historians Gerdts, Stebbins and Tatham and by fly fishing historian Schullery. The 239-page book, with 123 color illustrations and 51 in black and white, is published by the Fine Arts Museums and Amon Carter and distributed by Thames & Hudson.
The following lectures will be presented in conjunction with “: Winslow Homer, Artist and Angler”: April 27, from 3 to 4 pm, an American Masterpiece Lecture: “Pictures for Anglers: Winslow Homer and Sporting Art”; May 1, 12:15 to 12:45 pm, “Homer’s Angling Holidays: Quebec”; and May 8, 12:15 to 12:45 pm, “Homer’s Angling Holidays: Florida,” with Patricia Junker, curator of paintings and sculpture.
Also, on May 22, 12:15 to 12:45 pm, a gallery talk with Alan Laureyns, docent, Amon Carter Museum, “A Fly Fisherman’s Perspective on Homer’s Angling Pictures”; and on May 22, 6 pm a special lecture with Judith C. Walsh, senior paper conservator, National Gallery of Art, titled “Honed to a High Pitch: Winslow Homer’s Watercolor Technique.”
The Amon Carter Museum is at 3501 Camp Bowie Boulevard in Fort Worth. For information, 817-738-1933.