Winslow Homer: Illustrating Modern American Women
Winslow Homer (1836–1910), known for his paintings in oil and watercolor, is also regarded as one of the finest magazine illustrators of the nineteenth century. From 1857 to 1878 his wood-engraved images appeared in many of the nation’s leading magazines. Homer’s primary identity as a specialist in genre, or scenes of everyday life, most likely grew out of his early and long experience as an illustrator. His commissions for popular illustrated weeklies demanded descriptive images that conveyed the immediacy of changing customs, fashions, and values in a manner that could be broadly understood by the predominantly white, middle-class readers of these publications.
Social and economic shifts brought about by the Civil War provided a rich reservoir of subject matter for Homer and his contemporaries. Homer incorporated references to a range of such changes, as experienced by the targeted audience of the magazines and books he was hired to illustrate. Thus, for example, his scenes of women skating or playing croquet not only pointed to a new craze for health-promoting exercise, but also referred to new venues for social interaction between the sexes and the fashions recommended for such activities. Similarly, the growing contrasts between city and country life were played out in the “types” that Homer portrayed: the hardworking farm girl, the city woman with her highly regulated social life, or the art student and others of the emerging class of women who aspired to professional status in previously male-dominated pursuits.
Homer and Literary Illustration
The works in this case are examples of the illustrations that Homer produced to accompany literary texts. The demand for illustrators was at its peak in the United States during the time of Homer’s activity in the field. This boom was mainly a result of the huge growth in book publishing, particularly the establishment of a number of literary monthlies such as Scribner’s and The Galaxy. Publishing depended largely on the wood-engraving process in the days before photomechanical reproduction techniques came into widespread use.
Homer was engaged to illustrate a variety of poems, short stories, and novels of both “high” and “low” literary quality, yet the critical estimation of the writing seems to have had little impact on the quality of the drawings that he created. Strong relationships are often found between some of Homer’s illustrations and his more famous and now highly revered oils such as The Noon Recess, 1873, and The Morning Bell, 1871. Such links are reminders that, although illustration provided a comfortable income for Homer, his goals were fixed on success in the “higher” arts. When possible, he seems to have used his illustration assignments to explore and develop a style related to his independent pursuits as a painter.