He is a superstar artist in the US, revered for powerful civil war scenes and dramatic coastal storms, but Winslow Homer is barely known in the UK. Even less well known is the importance of an English seaside village in making him the truly great painter he became.
The National Gallery will this year aim to correct that with the first in-depth exhibition of Homer’s art ever staged in the UK.
It has announced details of a major show telling the story of someone who is a household name in the US. “Every American is brought up knowing their Winslow Homer imagery,” said Christopher Riopelle, the National Gallery’s curator of post-1800 paintings.
The exhibition will tell the story of his two years in Cullercoats, a fishing village on the coast between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth.
Homer made his name as an embedded artist-reporter with the union army during the American civil war, providing imagery for the monthly press.
He used these images in powerful paintings which, said Riopelle, “established him as someone who was really talking about America in the modern world. He was somehow telling Americans the truth about America.”
Precisely why Homer decided in 1881, in his mid-40s, to move to Cullercoats will never be fully known.
One story is that he met someone on the boat from the US to Liverpool who told him there was this place on the North Sea which had become something of an artists’ colony and he should take a look.
“I’m not sure that’s entirely believable,” said Riopelle. “He was looking for imagery of heroism in modern life and I think someone told him there were these life-saving crews up there on the North Sea.”
He followed his nose and found the heroism he was seeking. If there was an emergency at sea during the night Homer was out watching emergency crews go out, observing women on the beach beaten by the wind and the rain.
Homer made many small sketches of what he saw, mostly in watercolour.
“The fascinating thing about Cullercoats,” said Riopelle, “is that it doesn’t die when he leaves. Once back in America it is imagery he keeps going back to.”
Critics quickly noticed that Homer’s style had changed. Riopelle said you could see Cullercoats in a great picture, The Life Line from 1884.
“Cullercoats showed him how he could find allegory in modern life,” said Riopelle.
The exhibition will include important pictures Homer made in Cullercoats, or ones emerging directly from his time there. They include The Gale (1883), showing a single woman 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, with a ship and other things. Later “he took out all those anecdotal details and just reduced it to the woman on the shore in the gale who was, you know … coping. He wanted to get to the essence of things.”
Another Cullercoats work is Inside the Bar, an 1883 watercolour being lent by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, co-organiser of the exhibition.
Highlights of the London show will include Sharpshooter (1863), coming from the Portland Museum in Maine and painted during the civil war, and the probable star of the show, The Gulf Stream, being loaned by the Met.
Today no Homer work exists in any British collection. The National Gallery tried to acquire a Cullercoats sketch some years ago but was outbid.
“We were soundly beaten because of course Homer is a giant in America,” said Riopelle.
Homer, who liked being seen as a taciturn Yankee, has had acres written about him, a lot of it speculation. “When you’re writing about him it’s absolutely impossible because he never said a damn thing,” said Riopelle. “There’s no paper trail, no letters, nothing.”