In 1881–82, Homer lived in the English fishing village of Cullercoats, near Tynemouth on the North Sea. Homer concentrated on watercolors while in the region, primarily depicting the working lives of the people of the fishing community. Composed in the studio from various sketches, Perils of the Seaportrays a group gathered at the Volunteer Life Brigade’s Look Out House. Homer derived the title from the refrain of a contemporary hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”: “O hear us when we cry to Thee/for those in peril on the sea.” Along with the title and the setting, the direction of the figures’ faces suggests danger just offshore. Yet Homer focuses on the observers, particularly on the two women, and not on the object of their attention. The subdued browns and blue-grays augment the solemn atmosphere, although Homer added a detail of bright red in the center—a characteristic practice of the artist—in the shawl of the woman at right.
Seven years after completing the watercolor, Homer made an etching of Perils of the Sea. Using a dense profusion of lines to reproduce the scene, the artist altered details and allowed the natural reversal of the printing process to take place. He removed the railing behind the women and eliminated the pointing arm of one of the men. The print’s composition forms a stronger diagonal from the upper right to the lower left than in the watercolor, accentuating the separation of the human figures from the open expanse of the sea. Homer included two remarques: small images of an anchor and a sailor’s head in the lower margin; extra details of this kind were often added to a plate as a popular marketing device during the etching revival. Of the eight etchings Homer completed in the 1880s, seven were scenes relating to the sea, and three were taken from paintings made during his stay in Cullercoats. Homer clearly felt that Perils of the Searepresented a theme to which a wide audience would respond.
Clark bought the watercolor nearly a decade after the etching, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to bring the two versions together.
—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