One of America's great realist painters of the nineteenth century, Winslow Homer was born in Boston. When he was six years old his family moved out of the city to Cambridge, then quite rural, and encouraged by his mother, a watercolorist, he began to discover the moods and look of the natural environment. Apprenticed at the age of nineteen to a commercial lithographer, Homer began a prolific career as an illustrator that took him to the battlefields of the Civil War and continued into the late 1870s. He used some of his sketches made at the front as subjects when, in 1862, he began to work in oil. In 1865 he was elected to the National Academy of Design in New York. One year later he traveled to Paris, where one of his early paintings of a Civil War scene was exhibited in the Salon. Homer stayed in France barely one year and made sketches of Parisian life for Harper’s Weekly, one of the publications for which he provided illustrations. His exposure to the then radical art of the impressionists had little effect on his style other than a lightening of his palette, as he seemed to prefer the naturalism of the Barbizon painters, an earlier group of French artists.
By 1873 Homer made his first sustained efforts in watercolor, the medium that he was to claim as his own, and by 1875 he was exhibiting with the American Water Color Society of New York. In writing about the artist’s early works, Duncan Phillips remarked on his “innocence of eye” and “frank absorption in subject matter.” In 1881, Homer went to Cullercoats, a town on the bleak Northumberland coast of England, and his experiences there changed his art. Homer was deeply affected by the heroism of the fishermen and women of the village in their confrontations with nature and their struggle for survival. In response, Homer’s figures gained new strength, gravity and imposing stature. To emphasize their valor, he often showed them isolated against some aspect of nature: the sea, cliffs, rocks, or mountains, always conscious of the drama of their “grim business of fighting the elements,” as Phillips phrased it.
Living in Cullercoats matched Homer’s singular lifestyle and need for isolation. Returning to New York for a brief time, in 1883 he settled in Prout's Neck, on the coast of Maine, where his father and brother had built large summer houses. Mostly, he kept to himself. There, with views of the rocks and churning waters of the Atlantic, he concentrated on capturing the ferocity of nature’s forces and the individual’s struggle against the sea.