[P]resently, in a picture which, by reference to the catalogue, we saw designated as ‘Lemon,’ by Winslow Homer, we recognized a typical American country-girl in a common calico ‘blouse’ waist, a buff stuff skirt, and a Yankee face. She was half sitting, half hanging, on the edge of a stuffed ottoman, and was paring the skin from the lemon which she held between her fingers, and which her lips, drawn to a pucker, seemed to have tasted already in anticipation. The background of this painting was of a pale, lemon-coloured shade, and the girl’s dress ranged all the way from the ruddy, yellowish hues of iron and of burnt siena to the purest cadmium, and the artist appeared to have delighted himself in exhausting his palette with every tint which he could afford to spread upon the skirts of the girl in defining the broad lights upon her well-marked and nicely-accentuated figure. We speak from the artistic standpoint when we say that we scarcely know an example of a more vigorous treatment of the human form than Mr. Homer has delineated in this painting, with the simple folds and occasional stretching of this buff gown across the girl’s knees and around her body. Such feeling of vitality has often occurred before in Mr. Homer’s work. . . . But in this picture of ‘Lemon’ Mr. Homer has combined not alone expressive action of the human form, but he has accomplished in it a scale of refined colour and tone which even his warmest admirers could hardly have anticipated from his brush.
—Susan N. Carter, “The Tenth New York Water-Colour Exhibition,” Art Journal, Mar. 1877
The relative ease of the watercolor medium seemed to encourage Homer to take a freer attitude toward color. . . . [Lemon] is accomplished in variations of yellow and pink, the colors echoed and reinforced through compositional devices. The curvilinear design underscores the circular motion of peeling the lemon; the young woman’s pink lips are drawn to a pucker as if in anticipation of the taste of the lemon she pares; and the lemon is precisely in the center of the sheet, where it acts as the pictorial focus. Homer orchestrates tones of yellow that range from the pale lemon-colored background (now much faded), to the muddy tan in her blouse, to the bright yellow of the lemon peel and the bench tacks, while every tint within the pink spectrum seems to be spread upon her dress, defining the broad light and shade of her figure. Homer’s artful use of color extends to his signature, which he inscribed in the same rose-brown as the Empire stool, echoing in the H of his own name the curved form of the ottoman’s wood base.
—Helen A. Cooper, Winslow Homer Watercolors (New Haven: Yale University Press and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1986)
A sturdy, elegantly dressed young woman sits on a parlor stool of fashionable Neoclassical design, incongruously peeling a lemon (so incongruous an action is it that many people, seeing the watercolor for the first time, assume that she is sewing, as Clark did when he bought it). She seems fully absorbed in her task, and that quiet concentration sets the tone for our response to the work: an appreciation of muteness and time suspended. Homer has given the figure an amplitude, fullness, and scale unprecedented in any of his earlier watercolors. Yet he has drained the scene of any narrative: the background—which Homer forms from a light yellow wash and the mere suggestions of shadows—offers no explanation of the woman’s enigmatic action. The terse title he gave the sheet—Lemon—is similarly focused and neutral. The abstract qualities of color and form become, by default, the work’s subjects. Lemon was one of five sheets that Homer showed in the American Water Color Society’s 1877 exhibition. Of the four now known, all show women (or perhaps the same woman) at full length engaged in quiet activities: in addition to peeling a lemon, another reads, one stands in front of a blackboard, and a pair plays backgammon. The critics found in them all, whether they liked them or not, originality and individuality, and took pleasure in Homer’s “Americanness”—in spite of the fact that the theme of these pictures (genteel young women set against neutral backgrounds) was extremely fashionable in European and American circles.
—Marc Simpson, curator of Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History and curator of American art at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute