In 1882 the critic George W. Sheldon wrote: “Winslow Homer . . . never fully found himself until he found the American shepherdess.” Homer had found her at Houghton Farm, owned by his family friend and patron Lawson Valentine, in Mountainville, New York, where he was a frequent visitor in the late 1870s. As a result of his stay in 1878, Homer painted dozens of watercolors of young girls (sometimes accompanied by a young boy) standing or resting in pastures, tending sheep, or picking apples—including Feeding Time, which Sterling Clark acquired in 1926. In February 1879 Homer exhibited twenty-three Houghton Farm watercolors to wide critical acclaim; we do not know if the Clark’s Shepherdess of Houghton Farm was among them. One reviewer wrote: “Never before has a collection of [Homer’s] works been so beautiful in sentiment and evinced such feeling of truth.” The New York Times stated: “Mr. Homer . . . must now take rank as one of the best of water-colorists.” Thereafter, critics recognized Homer’s watercolors as a significant portion of his work.
Larger in scale than most of the other Houghton Farm pictures, Shepherdess of Houghton Farm uses subtle modulations of color to create the open space of the pasture, and its acidic tones provide a conspicuous contrast to the rich, verdant hues of Feeding Time, also painted in 1878. Most of the Houghton Farm watercolors were painted out of doors rather than in the studio, but the Clark possesses a drawing by Homer of sheep grazing (on the reverse side of Study for “Undertow” I), suggesting that Homer may have used preparatory sketches for some of his pastoral scenes. Like both Feeding Time and the oil painting Farmyard Scene, Shepherdess of Houghton Farm exemplifies nostalgia for an agrarian past that Homer shared with other American artists and their public.
—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