Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler

Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler

Thumbnail image by Volker Lekies from Pixabay

A review of the book by Patricia Junker and Sarah Burn

By Kathy A. Megyeri 

For years, Jacksonville resident Joe Kelly fished off the Atlantic Coast until he discovered one of artist Winslow Homer’s watercolors in the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville and read Junker and Burn’s book on Winslow Homer. Those experiences changed his fishing excursions to the West Coast of Florida because of Homer’s love of the area, particularly in Homosassa. 

Homosassa. Image from Florida State Parks

About Winslow Homer

Homer first arrived there to fish in the winter of 1904 and wrote to this brother that fishing there “is the best in America so far as I can find,” and there he stayed to paint some of his most vibrant watercolors of fishing along the banks of the Homosassa River, particularly the black bass and tarpon that jumped up from the water. He traveled there to escape the dreaded Maine winters, and there his painting style changed from oils to the light, fresh watercolors that juxtaposed the dense, dark vegetation of the river’s banks to the iridescent, light, fresh waters of the river. 

He made four trips there between 1904 and 1909, a year before he died, and while in Homosassa, he socialized with other anglers, painted and fished. The town’s name comes from the Seminole Indian word meaning “river of fishes.” The town is probably also known for David Levy Yulee who in 1851 established a 5,000-acre sugar plantation on the Homosassa River which was worked by 1,000 slaves and he raised cotton and citrus as well. Yulee became a U.S. Senator but after the Civil War ended in 1865, Yulee was imprisoned, the slaves were freed, and the site was abandoned although its remains have been designated a State Park. 

Joe Kelly (left) on his fishing boat in Jacksonville

Homosassa is two hours north of Sarasota and about an hour north of Tampa and is home to large numbers of “migratory manatees” because of its springs and warm waters, which also make it one of the best places in the world to catch Atlantic tarpon, so no wonder fishing aficionados and celebrities like financier John Jacob Astor, former President Grover Cleveland, and Thomas Nelson Evans, Jr., son of the Mellon financier, fished there for trout, grouper, red drum and tarpon that migrated north up the coast to Homosassa. 

Tarpon are found in both marine and freshwater habitats and usually ascend rivers to get to freshwater marshes which is why this area is so welcoming to this species.  They are able to survive in brackish water of various pH levels and habitats with lower dissolved oxygen due to their swim bladders which they use primarily to breathe. They’re able to rise to the surface, take gulps of air which gives them a short burst of energy, and thus make them a fisherman’s delight. 

They grow from larvae in ocean waters to mid-life in salt marshes, tidal pools, creeks and warm rivers with sandy, mud bottoms and then move to fresh water, but when adults, they may turn to the ocean or stay in fresh water. They can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh over 200 pounds and are covered with shiny, silvery scales. They have large eyes and broad mouths but their lower jaws jut out from the rest of their faces.  Females can lay up to 12 million eggs at once. 

Image by zoosnow from Pixabay

Interestingly, baby tarpons don’t forage for food but instead absorb nutrients from seawater but as adults, they are carnivorous and feed on prey of insects, crabs, and grass shrimp, but they swallow their food whole and hunt nocturnally. And because they eat almost anything dead or alive, their migrations are usually dependent on water temperatures of 72 to 82 degrees, so the Homosassa River is perfect for them. Because of their silver scales and the fact that they come to the surface for air, they are easy prey for sharks, crocodiles, porpoises and alligators.  

Joe Kelly and other fishermen can attest to the fact that they are considered great game fish and are prized because of their large size, the fight they put up, and their amazing leaping ability, but they’re bony fish and not very good for eating so most are released after being caught, but still, many tournaments throughout the year are held to catch them. Because they tolerate boat traffic and low water quality well, they’ve easily adapted to environments like that around Homosassa where the river, eight miles long, runs west to the Gulf of Mexico and, as it moves inland, changes from saltwater to fresh. 

"The Gulf Stream" by Winslow Homer. Image from The MET
“The Gulf Stream” by Winslow Homer. Image from The MET

Thus, it was here that artist Homer loved painting his water colors.  He stayed once for a week for $18 at the Homosassa Inn, hired a buggy and cart to bring his luggage from the railroad station, and rented a boat and guide to paddle as he drew and fished in areas where the water was particularly clear.  In one watercolor of a bass jumping up, he added a bottle in the water to show how large the fish was. 

Homosassa, with a population of a little over 2,000, only has prints of some of Homer’s works in the local library, but the current exhibition in New York’s Metropolitan Library called “Winslow Homer Crosscurrents” has almost 90 of his oils and water colors.   

Foul Hooked Black Bass by Winslow Homer, 1904, watercolor. Image from Wikipedia

Other museums have some of his works like the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville at the University, the Norton in Palm Beach, the Cummer in Jacksonville, and the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum in Daytona Beach.  In Junker and Burn’s book, the watercolors are reproduced and, as the Wall Street Journal says (Jan., 10, 2003), “some of them are light and illustrative; some dark and turbulent; some tranquil and brooding.” 

The book was published to coincide with an exhibition of Homer’s fly-fishing paintings, watercolor techniques and insight into the sport.  It helped Homer’s reputation considerably as an American watercolor artist, especially since the book focused on the importance of fish and fishing in his life and work. 

Junker is the curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and her collaborator, Sarah Burn, is a professor of fine arts at Indiana University in Bloomington.  The book includes Homer’s fishing camp in Prout’s Neck, Maine to his illustrations of trout, tarpon, bass, and other fish.  Of the 184 illustrations, 123 are in color with an emphasis on watercolors including “The Angler” in 1874 so no doubt the book’s greatest appeal is to fishermen like Joe Kelly and as a gift for fly fishermen. 

An Orvis fly fishing guide heartedly recommends the book for its accurate writing and gorgeous paintings because then more people, especially anglers, will know that Homer is best known for his marine subjects and understand why he’s considered one of the most famous painters in 19th century American art.