Why Cullercoats? To answer this, we need to go back to the 1870s, when Homer was already looking for a change in his art – and his interest in the sea was swelling, as suggested by that 1873-76 picture of a sailing boat, Breezing Up ( A Fair Wind). He was thinking increasingly about J M W Turner, that briny master of marine painting, then considered Britain’s finest painter, whose work was the talk of avant-garde circles in America.
In 1872, for instance, the American businessman and collector John Taylor Johnston, who already owned Homer’s most famous Civil War canvas, Prisoners from the Front (1866), acquired, from the art critic John Ruskin, Turner’s harrowing Slave Ship, of 1840, which is now in Boston – and we know that Homer was present on the evening Johnston unveiled it in New York.
On March 15 1881, Homer set sail aboard the SS Parthia, bound for Liverpool. From there, he made his way to London, but he only stayed for a week – finding time to execute just one atmospheric watercolor of the Palace of Westminster beneath a red moon – before traveling on to Cullercoats.
As destinations go, a tiny settlement above Newcastle upon Tyne, albeit one with picturesque views across the bay to the ruins of Tynemouth Priory, may sound a little random for an artist from another continent. There’s even a story – which Riopelle discounts – that Homer only heard about the seaside village for the first time on his voyage over. In fact, Cullercoats was already something of a tourist destination, as well as a colony for artists with one eye on a market for scenes of simple fishermen. The English painter Frank Holl, for instance, had produced No Tidings from the Sea (1870) after a holiday there.
Homer, a lifelong bachelor, only intended to stay for six months, but lingered longer. It was a remarkably fruitful period. He started at least seven oil paintings, including Hark! The Lark (1882) – its title lifted from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline – which depicts a frieze-like group of three young women, laden with baskets and netting, suspending their labors to listen to a songbird. Two decades later, Homer described it as “the most important picture I ever painted, and the very best one”. He also produced about 150 brilliant sketches and watercolors – a store of imagery that, Riopelle explains, he could draw upon “for years and years afterwards”, long after he departed for America on November 11 1882.