An Interview with David Tatham author of Winslow Homer and His Cullercoats Paintings

Available this Winter

SUP: David, you’ve written extensively on Winslow Homer. What drew you to dedicate so much of your time exploring the life and work of this 19th century world-renowned American Artist?

DT: You are right in saying that a good deal of my published work concerns the artist Winslow Homer. This has been encouraged by the fact that the sites in which Homer sets his work:  Boston, New York, The Adirondacks, Quebec, and London are places I know well, and in which I feel at home. This adds a further element of realism to what I see in his work.

SUP: This book happens to be about one of Winslow Homer’s most creative and productive times in his life, which many refer to as his “turning point.” What are the main aspects that you think influence this? What do you think made this time so influential for him?

DT:  Yes, you are right on the mark when you say that the book is about one of Homer’s most creative and productive times. This was indeed a “turning point”, but it seems to me that the meanings typically given to that term in the Homer literature tend to be unhelpful. Some claim that homer’s subjects shifted wholesale to scenes of storms at seas and of fishermen coping with dangers, but scarcely any of these things have prominence or even simple appearances in his work. There was indeed a “turning” and it proved to be a major one. The change was not in Homer’s paintings so much as in his standing as an artist. The Cullercoats paintings and those that quickly followed established him as stronger, more powerful painter than his preceding paintings had suggested. After his final exhibition of Cullercoats paintings in New York   and those that quickly followed, Homer was clearly a “major” American painter and then some. This was his “turning.”

SUP: Was there any specific work of art that stood out to you from Winslow Homer’s time in Cullercoats?

DT: Yes indeed. Top of the list is Beach Scene 1881.  An amazing composition of four human figures, you don’t forget that dangling arm vividly set against a wrecked coble and then a misty background of other figures. In these respects, there is nothing else quite like it in Homer’s work.  I wonder whether his No. 1 Cullercoats model, Maggie Jefferson, may have had a hand in organizing this work. She is the child minder in this scene.

Beach Scene, Cullercoats, 1881. Watercolor over graphite on cream wove paper, 11 7/16 x 19 1/2 in. Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1924. 1955.1490. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute. clarkart.edu.

SUP: It seems as if many different historians have their own take on Winslow Homer’s life. Are there any misconceptions about him that you would like readers to know?

DT:  Many different historians have varied “takes” on Homer as a person, but all present him as a deeply serious artist much attached to his parents and other family members, and quite reserved even with his few friends. He was not a “hermit” as the press sometimes described him. He was certainly well respected as a person in Cullercoats.  

SUP: This point in time is seen as a very influential time in Winslow Homer’s life. Mariana Van Rensselaer said in one of her reviews that his style shifted to having a “freedom from conventionality of thought” during this time. What aspects of this time do you think aided him in this?

DT: I am glad that you have cited Mariana Van Rensselaer’s essay on Homer, for though it considers him as still a relatively young man and developing artist, it remains a wonderfully insightful essay on both the artist and his works the years in and surrounding his time in Cullercoats. His new concept of the essence of the experiences of working women – an essence distinctly positive in every respect – is revelatory. He shows little of the hard laboring men–the fishermen–but makes it abundantly clear that these are not peasants nor are their wives. In this he broke from long standing traditions on the Continent and even elsewhere in England, to define and portray fisherfolk as of a lower social class.

SUP: Winslow Homer’s work during this time strayed away from focusing on the men of the community and placed an emphasis on nature and younger women in this area. What aspects of his life in Cullercoats do you assume made him more successful than other artists in the area who might have had a more holistic inspirational view of Cullercoats?

Perils of the Sea, 1881. Watercolor over graphite on cream wove paper, 14 5/8 x 20 15/16 in. Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1927. 1955.774. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute. clarkart.edu.

DT: Homer seems to have spent more time with the village women and older girls than did other artists in the community or beyond, and in this he is certain to have used his American mannerisms–social openness, good humor–generosity of spirit–and so forth. He transformed the manner in which he had painted American younger women a few years earlier.

SUP: Do you think your knowledge of art history has impacted your writing style? If so, how?

DT: I believe that my knowledge of art history, both from its literature and from my familiarity with various masterworks, has had relatively little impact on the writing style of evident in my books and articles about Homer.

SUP: Winslow Homer later decided to make renditions of his watercolor works into etched pieces. He took out certain aspects of pieces to make other parts stand out more, such as the handrail in etched version of Perils of The Sea. How do you think changing medium/technique impacted his work?

DT:  I am sure that Homer turned to etching as a medium for revised versions of a few of his Cullercoats paintings for two reasons. First, his income. There was a fair chance that new and revised versions of certain of his Cullercoats paintings, now printed on paper, would add a welcome amount to his income.  Second, a vogue for the medium of etching had arisen among American fine artists and it seemed likely that Homer saw a way to excel while remaining a fellow participant in the uses of the new medium.

David Tatham photo by Nicole Waite

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