Homer was born in Boston in 1836, the middle son of a hardware merchant who, in 1849, went bust in the gold rush. At the age of eighteen, Homer was apprenticed at a lithography shop. Thereafter, he freelanced while studying art in schools and on his own. In 1860, acquiring a copy of the French scientist M. E. Chevreul's "Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors" (an analysis of how color interacts in the eye), Homer grounded his practice in modernizing theories that were shared by the French Impressionists--who seem not to have influenced him directly. (Much of his work retains a uniquely up-to-date air.)
Living on Washington Square, he had many friends and supporters, though only modest public success. He complained, throughout his career, of being misunderstood. He visited Europe and spent the better part of two years in an English fishing village. In 1884, he settled in Prout's Neck, on the Maine coast, where he gloried in having "no other man or woman within half a mile" and took little note of his growing fame. He lived there, often wintering in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean, until his death, in 1910.
Early in his career, it was his more finished works that were most popular - the ones that popularized a sentimental look at 19th century rural America such as "Snap the Whip." But today it's his rougher, less polished watercolors that catch the eye. Homer started painting watercolors on a regular basis in 1873, proving popular. They sold more readily, which improved his financial condition considerably.
"By about 1890, however, Homer left narrative behind to concentrate on the beauty, force, and drama of the sea itself. In their dynamic compositions and richly textured passages, his late seascapes capture the look and feel (and even suggest the sound) of masses of onrushing and receding water. For Homer's contemporaries, these were the most extravagantly admired of all his works. They remain among his most famous today, appreciated for their virtuoso brushwork, depth of feeling, and hints of modernist abstraction." (Essay at the Met website)
Homer never taught in a school or privately, as did Thomas Eakins, but his works strongly influenced succeeding generations of American painters for their direct and energetic interpretation of man's stoic relationship to an often neutral and sometimes harsh wilderness. Robert Henri called Homer's work an "integrity of nature."
American illustrator and teacher Howard Pyle revered Homer and encouraged his students to study him. His student and fellow illustrator, N. C. Wyeth (and through him Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth), shared the influence and appreciation, even following Homer to Maine for inspiration.The elder Wyeth’s respect for his antecedent was "intense and absolute," and can be observed in his early work Mowing (1907). Perhaps Homer's austere individualism is best captured in his admonition to artists:
- "Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems."