Playing a Fish grows directly from a portrait watercolor that Homer made in the summer of 1874: The Painter Eliphalet Terry Fishing from a Boat (The Century Association, New York, gift of the artist in 1876). Fishing was one of the central activities of Homer’s maturity: travel itineraries, memberships in clubs, friendships, even the bonds of brotherhood were formed or strengthened by it. Although Homer began sketching scenes of fishing while still a boy, he only began serious professional work on the subject from the mid-1870s. Terry—recognizably the man in the watercolor and arguably the man in the Clark painting—played a crucial role in that focus.
In the summer of 1870 Terry led Homer to the Reverend Thomas Baker’s farm near Minerva, New York, in the Adirondacks. There the two men lodged for a fisherman’s holiday. They returned in the summer of 1874—when Homer painted Terry’s watercolor portrait, which served in turn as the study for the Clark oil. In 1887 the Baker family sold their 5,000-acre tract to a group of gentlemen-sportsmen who had just founded the Adirondack Preserve Association; Homer was elected a member in January 1888. This site—known shortly thereafter as the North Woods Club—was where Homer went repeatedly for weeks at a time (he made at least eighteen visits from 1889 through 1910), painting many of his most dynamic sporting watercolors and oils in the last two decades of his life.
Throughout the 1870s Homer often made oils and watercolors of related themes. What is unusual about Playing a Fish is that Homer went back to the oil roughly twenty years after finishing it—it was signed and dated 1875—and repainted significant portions of it: he has reshaped the small guideboat into a canoe and given the sky and its reflections a pink and ivory glow in place of the original pale blue. Perhaps Terry’s death in 1896 prompted Homer to take up the canvas, which he apparently never showed in public, and give it this calm, crepuscular air.
—Marc Simpson, curator of Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History and curator of American art at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute