The Boat Builders
The Boat Builders
The Boat Builders

The Boat Builders

Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910)

Currently on View in K212
Image Licensing

  • This scene pairs Homer’s love of outdoor subjects with his favorite theme of boys at play.
  • The overlapping toy boat and sailing ship connects the real world with the boys’ imagination.
  • Homer was the era’s premier interpreter of the American way of life.
Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

Winslow Homer was the most down-to-earth visual interpreter of American life in the 19th century. During the Civil War, he was sent to the front as an artist-correspondent for Harper's magazine, and his sketches of battle scenes gave readers a close-up view of Americans at war. In the 1870s, Homer depicted a variety of subjects, but his favorite themes were rural settings that included children playing in the out-of-doors. He recorded them in a realistic manner, without the sentimentality that was so prevalent in the work of his contemporaries.

Homer spent the summer of 1873 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he painted The Boat Builders, which belongs to a series of prints and drawings devoted to shipbuilding. His genius for subtle yet penetrating narrative is apparent in the central passage of this small canvas: by overlapping the toy boat and the sailing ship, the artist connects the real world of fishermen with the boys' imagination. The juxtaposition also predicts the future of these Cape Ann youths, who will likely make their living from the sea. The painting conveys a sense of deep peace as the boys play quietly in the brilliant sunlight. A celebrated magazine illustrator, Homer also used this image of two boys in an engraving for the Harper's Weekly of October 11, 1873.

[Homer's] art is the world as a boy sees it . . . with delights to be explored, such as we remember from our own young days.
-Art historian Lloyd Goodrich, 1973

The Maritime Themes of Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer was the premier interpreter of nineteenth-century American life, which he portrayed frankly. During the Civil War, Homer was sent to the front lines as an artist-correspondent for Harper’s magazine, and his sketches of battle scenes gave readers a detailed view of Americans at war. Homer’s early activity as an illustrator prepared him well for his career as a genre painter. Many of America’s leading artists had followed a similar path. Unlike them, however, Homer did not abandon illustration, and he continued to produce designs for Harper’s Weekly on a regular basis. His graphic work remained separate from his paintings until about 1870. Then, over the next four years, his canvases often provided the basis for his magazine prints, and many of his pictures may have been done with both media in mind. In the 1870s, Homer depicted a variety of subjects, but his favorite themes were rural settings that included children playing out-of-doors. He captured them in a realistic manner, without the sentimentality that was so prevalent in the work of his contemporaries and that seemed to define Victorian domestic scenes.

During the early 1870s, Homer often explored a single theme through several media, and his oil painting, Boat Builders, set on the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, relates to a series of prints and drawings devoted to shipbuilding. Homer also used this image of the two boys in an engraving for the October 11, 1873, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The scene pairs Homer’s love of outdoor subjects with his fondness for themes of boys at play. In the central passage, Homer’s genius for subtle, yet penetrating narrative connects the real nautical world with the boys’ imagination by overlapping the toy boat and sailing ship. In their play, the two boys may have been preparing for future lives at sea as fishermen, sailors, or shipwrights. This panel bears only a trace of the ominous tone that often pervades Homer’s paintings of life by the sea.

Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art/MacMillan, 1945.

Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1974.

Dr. Alexander Crombie Humphreys [1851-1927], Hoboken, New Jersey; inherited by his daughter, Mrs. E. H. Turnbull; (M. Knoedler and Co., New York, New York, and Macbeth Galleries, New York, New York); purchased by Edward Ward McMahon in 1932; sold about 1950 to (Hirschl and Adler, New York); {1} purchased by the John Herron Art Institue, Indianapolis, Indiana, now the Indianapolis Museum of Art, in 1954 (54.10).

{1} All provenance information contained in a letter from Homer scholar Lloyd Goodrich, dated 29 April 1954, in IMA Historical File (54.10).

Object Information

artist
Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910)
creation date
1873
materials
oil on panel
dimensions
6 x 10-1/4 in.
13-3/4 x 17-3/4 in. (framed)
accession number
54.10
credit line
Martha Delzell Memorial Fund
copyright
Public Domain
collection
American Painting and Sculpture to 1945
colors

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