Perils of the Sea belongs to a group of large and ambitious watercolors often called “The Tynemouth Series” after the name of the English fishing village where they were executed. This series marks a new stage in the development of Homer’s art. Found here for the first time are the monumentality of figural types and the sense of drama expressed in much of his subsequent work.
When first exhibited in 1891 from the collection of Thomas Clarke, a patron of the artist, Perils of the Sea was described as representing a coastal community as it watches a shipwreck. Although no shipwreck is shown, it is possible that such an event caused the women to gather in this foul weather and to turn their attention toward the sea.
Perils of the Sea was not drawn from nature but composed from a number of preparatory sketches presently in the Cooper Union Museum, New York. It seems that Homer originally wished to represent a scene of men pulling boats on to the beach during stormy weather. Such a scene is depicted in a drawing1 in black chalk which bears the annotation, First Sketch. This was perhaps followed by another drawing,2 similar in style, which represents a number of men in oilskins standing on the beach, this time without boats. At this point, Homer had probably decided upon the general composition for Perils of the Sea, for at the bottom of the second sketch he has quickly drawn two small studies, one again representing figures on the beach, and the other showing the site: a road and sidewalk, a railing, and, to the left, the end of a coast guard lookout station.3 In both of these sketches, Homer has drawn a line around the composition in order to visualize the enframed sketches as compositional ideas.
With the general arrangement of figures and architecture in mind, Homer then proceeded to establish the position and attitude of the figures and to decide on the colors. On the reverse of the second sketch is drawn another variant of the composition, with the following note: Sky the same value as road—but nothing as white as water. Homer followed these notations in the final version.
Additional pen-and-ink studies illustrate his subsequent thoughts for the composition. One sketch, with color annotations, represents the scene with no figures before the railing but with boats on the beach. Another sketch shows the boats, a number of men, and a group of women who lean on the railing and look out to sea. Homer seems to have been particularly concerned about finding the proper attitudes for these women, for he devoted several studies to this problem. At the bottom of [one sketch] they are seen alone on the beach. On the reverse of this sketch, he has again drawn them at the railing, but this time a child has joined their company. Homer’s final solution to this problem illustrates the new dramatic emphasis he gave his art at this time. Isolated from their background, the women here are monumental in scale and face the spectator directly. Whereas the earlier studies for the composition are essentially descriptive, the final version is highly dramatic. This development is continued by Homer in a later variant of Perils of the Sea, a painting of 1883 entitled The Gale, at the Worcester Art Museum, in which a woman and her two small children stand against a stormy sea.4
Some of the sketches here discussed were also used for the painting of 1881 or 1882, Watching a Storm on the English Coast.5
Homer’s trip to England in 1881 was probably motivated by a desire to master contemporary English watercolor technique.6 The mottled passage of the sky, for example, is achieved by soaking the sheet with water and then lifting out part of the color with an absorbent material. His use of a masking medium, another English practice, can be observed in the light horizontal brush strokes at the roof of the coast guard lookout station at the far left.
In 1887 Homer reproduced Perils of the Sea in an etching, one of a series of etched copies of his work. The etching differs in details, most notably in the absence of the railing, and in the fisherman who merely looks at the sea instead of pointing to it.
The drawing has also been called Forebodings.1. Cooper Union Museum, New York, Acc. No. 1912-12-215.
2. Cooper Union Museum, New York, Acc. No. 1912-12-270.
3. This was mistakenly called a summer cottage in the Clarke catalogue of 1891. Identification established by Downes, Winslow Homer (1911).
4. The original version is only known by X-ray photographs. Homer repainted The Gale in 1893, removing the observatory building and changing the wooden pier to a stony ledge. See Lloyd Goodrich, Worcester Art Museum Annual (1937-38). Illustrated also in Goodrich, Winslow Homer (1944), pl. 23.
5. Goodrich, Winslow Homer (1944), pl. 23.
6. Hereward Lester Cooke, “The Development of Winslow Homer’s Water-color Technique,” Art Quarterly, 24 (1961), p. 177.
—Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, Standish D. Lawder, and Charles W. Talbot, Jr., Drawings from the Clark Art Institute, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 1:139-41, no. 338.