From 1887 to 1889, in the years following the completion of such monumental paintings as Undertow, Homer worked almost exclusively on watercolors and prints rather than oils. During the following decade, he made far fewer oil paintings than watercolors, in part because he thought that selling larger, more complex works was becoming more difficult. In addition, he retreated from exhibiting in such major New York venues as the National Academy of Design and the Society of American Artists. Nonetheless, he continued to paint. Sleigh Ride, which is both unsigned and undated, marks Homer’s experimentation with an unusual composition in a painting not meant for public exhibition or sale. It was hanging in Homer’s studio at the time of his death.
A far cry from his early illustrations of lighthearted winter scenes, this spare, Japanesque painting presents its almost abstract view with a near-monochromatic palette of blue. The deep hue of the night sky, the bold azure of the sleigh’s path, and the light blue tints in the white snow unite to create a sense of still harmony despite the tension produced by the strong diagonal crest of the hill. The pink and peach tones in the track-marks, the brown of the sleigh, the red scarf of one rider, and the yellow moonlight silhouetting the other figure furnish the few contrasting colors. Two black birds and a breaking wave in the distance are the only other signs of motion in this cold, barren landscape. The mysterious aura of the picture intimates a private, personal vision and encourages a contemplative mood.
—Susannah Maurer, graduate intern for Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History and member of the Class of 2006, Graduate Program in the History of Art co-sponsored by Williams College and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute