Homer was the second of three sons of Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer, both from long lines of New Englanders. His mother was a gifted amateur watercolorist and Homer’s first teacher, and she and her son had a close relationship throughout their lives. Homer took on many of her traits, including her quiet, strong-willed, terse, sociable nature; her dry sense of humor; and her artistic talent. Homer had a happy childhood, growing up mostly in then rural Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an average student, but his art talent was evident in his early years.
Homer’s father was a volatile, restless businessman who was always looking to “make a killing”. When Homer was thirteen, Charles gave up the hardware store business to seek a fortune in the California gold rush. When that failed, Charles left his family and went to Europe to raise capital for other get-rich-quick schemes that didn’t materialize.
After Homer’s high school graduation, his father saw an ad in the newspaper and arranged for an apprenticeship. Homer’s apprenticeship to a Boston commercial lithographer at the age of 19. He worked repetitively on sheet music covers and other commercial work for two years. By 1857, his freelance career was underway after he turned down an offer to join the staff of Harper's Weekly. “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone”, Homer later stated, “I have had no master, and never shall have any.”
Homer’s career as an illustrator lasted nearly twenty years. He contributed to magazines such as Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly, at a time when the market for illustrations was growing rapidly, and when fads and fashions were changing quickly. His early works, mostly commercial engravings of urban and country social scenes, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings — qualities that remained important throughout his career. His quick success was mostly due to this strong understanding of graphic design and also to the adaptability of his designs to wood engraving.
In 1859, he opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, the artistic and publishing capital of the United States. Until 1863 he attended classes at the National Academy of Design, and studied briefly with Frédéric Rondel, who taught him the basics of painting. In only about a year of self-training, Homer was producing excellent oil work. His mother tried to raise family funds to send him to Europe for further study but instead Harper's sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861–65), where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the murderous ones. Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer's expanding skills from illustrator to painter. Like with his urban scenes, Homer also illustrated women during war time, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, however, Homer would regain his strength and re-focus his artistic vision. He set to work on a series of war-related paintings based on his sketches, among them "Sharpshooter on Picket Duty" (1862), "Home, Sweet Home" (1863), and "Prisoners from the Front" (1866). After the war, Homer turned his attention primarily to scenes of childhood and young women, reflecting nostalgia for simpler times, both his own and the nation as a whole. His "Crossing the Pasture" (1871–72) depicts two boys who idealize brotherhood with the hope of a united future after the war that pitted brother against brother.
At nearly the beginning of his painting career, the twenty-seven year old Homer demonstrated a maturity of feeling, depth of perception, and mastery of technique which was immediately recognized. His realism was objective, true to nature, and emotionally controlled.
After exhibiting at the National Academy of Design, Homer finally traveled to Paris, France in 1867 where he remained for a year. His most praised early painting, "Prisoners from the Front", was on exhibit at the Exposition Universelle in Paris at the same time. He did not study formally but he practiced landscape painting while continuing to work for Harper's, depicting scenes of Parisian life.
Homer painted about a dozen small paintings during the stay. Although he arrived in France at a time of new fashions in art, Homer's main subject for his paintings was peasant life, showing more of an alignment with the established French Barbizon school and the artist Millet than with newer artists Manet and Courbet. Though his interest in depicting natural light parallels that of the early impressionists, there is no evidence of direct influence as he was already a plein-air painter in America and had already evolved a personal style which was much closer to Manet than Monet. Unfortunately, Homer was very private about his personal life and his methods (even denying his first biographer any personal information or commentary), but his stance was clearly one of independence of style and a devotion to American subjects.
Throughout the 1870s Homer continued painting mostly rural or idyllic scenes of farm life, children playing, and young adults courting. In 1875, Homer quit working as a commercial illustrator and vowed to survive on his paintings and watercolors alone. Despite his excellent critical reputation, his finances continued to remain precarious.
From 1877 through 1909 Homer exhibited often at the Boston Art Club. Works on paper, both drawings and watercolors, were frequently exhibited by Homer beginning in 1882. A most unusual sculpture by the Artist, Hunter with Dog - Northwoods, was exhibited in 1902. By that year Homer had switched his primary Gallery from the Boston based Doll and Richards to the New York City based Knoedler & Co.
Homer became a member of The Tile Club, a group of artists and writers who met frequently to exchange ideas and organize outings for painting, as well as foster the creation of decorative tiles. For a short time, he designed tiles for fireplaces. Homer's nickname in The Tile Club was 'The Obtuse Bard'. Other well known Tilers were painters William Merritt Chase, Arthur Quartley, and the sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens.
Homer started painting with watercolors on a regular basis in 1873 during a summer stay in Gloucester, Massachusetts. From the beginning, his technique was natural, fluid and confident, demonstrating his innate talent for a difficult medium. His watercolors proved popular and enduring, and sold more readily, improving his financial condition considerably.
As a result of disappointments with women or from some other emotional turmoil, Homer became reclusive in the late 1870s, no longer enjoying urban social life and living instead in Gloucester. For a while, he even lived in secluded Eastern Point Lighthouse (with the keeper’s family). In re-establishing his love of the sea, Homer found a rich source of themes while closely observing the fishermen, the sea, and the marine weather. After 1880, he rarely featured genteel women at leisure, focusing instead on working women.
In 1883, Homer moved to Prouts Neck, Maine (in Scarborough) and lived at his family’s estate in the remodeled carriage house just seventy-five feet from the ocean. During the rest of the mid-1880s, Homer painted his monumental sea scenes.
At fifty years of age, Homer had become a “Yankee Robinson Crusoe, cloistered on his art island” and “a hermit with a brush”. These paintings established Homer, as the New York Evening Post wrote, “in a place by himself as the most original and one of the strongest of American painters.” But despite his critical recognition, Homer’s work never achieved the popularity of traditional Salon pictures or of the portraits by John Singer Sargent.
In these years, Homer received emotional sustenance primarily from his mother, brother Charles, and sister-in-law Martha (“Mattie”). After his mother’s death, Homer became a “parent” for his aging but domineering father and Mattie became his closest female intimate. In the winters of 1884-5, Homer ventured to warmer locations in Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas, and did a series of watercolors as part of a commission for Century Magazine. He replaced the turbulent green storm-tossed sea of Prouts Neck with the sparkling blue skies of the Caribbean, and the hardy New Englanders with the leisurely Black natives, further expanding his watercolor technique, subject matter, and palette. His tropical stays inspired and refreshed him in much the same way as Paul Gauguin's trips to Tahiti.
Additionally, Homer found inspiration in a number of summer trips to the North Woods Club, near the hamlet of Minerva, New York in the Adirondack Mountains. It was on these fishing vacations that he experimented freely with the watercolor medium, producing works of the utmost vigor and subtlety, hymns to solitude, nature, and to outdoor life.
By 1900, Homer finally reached financial stability, as his paintings fetched good prices from museums and he began to receive rents from real estate properties. He also became free of the responsibilities of caring for his father who had died two years earlier. Homer continued producing excellent watercolors, mostly on trips to Canada and the Caribbean. Other late works include sporting scenes, as well as seascapes absent of human figures, mostly of waves crashing against rocks in varying light. In his last decade, he at times followed the advice he gave a student artist in 1907, “Leave rocks for your old age—they’re easy”.
Homer died in 1910 at the age of 74 in his Prouts Neck studio and was interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
American illustrator and teacher Howard Pyle revered Homer and encouraged his students to study him. His student and fellow illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, shared the influence and appreciation, even following Homer to Maine for inspiration.
In 1962 the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp honoring Winslow Homer.