has continued to grow as collectors learn more about Homer's first
career -- the nearly twenty-five years he worked for the leading
periodicals of the day, such as Harper's, Leslie's and
Appleton's. The value of these engravings as social commentary
is recognized. They are also within the financial reach of most of us,
whereas his paintings are not.
BACKGROUND OF HOMER'S ILLUSTRATIVE ART
Homer started his career as an apprentice to a lithographer in Boston, Massachusetts. After his apprenticeship, he worked as a freelance artist in Boston and New York.
Homer's arrival on the graphic arts scene coincided with the advent of the illustrated newspaper in America. This new journalistic form began in England in 1842 with the Illustrated London News. The illustrated newspaper was the television of its age, creating an impact by giving a new dimension to the news. This lively form of journalism presented the news of the world at large, using artist-engravers as illustrator-writers, an early version of correspondents.
The appearance of this illustrated "miracle" was made possible by using the newly-developed steam press. Included with the type were engraved blocks of wood on which a picture had been drawn. The lines of the drawing stood out in relief as the engraver or carver cut away all areas between the lines. The remaining raised lines could then be inked and an impression made. The quality was quite often better than earlier woodcuts due to the discovery that drawing on coated, fine-grained boxwood would produce much finer lines than had been possible previously.
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From the beginning, publishers had difficulty getting enough artist-engravers for their new papers. Winslow Homer decided to switch his craft from lithography to wood engraving. In 1857, he sold a picture to Ballou's, the first of the major American illustrated newspapers. This was followed by 264 more illustrations sold to periodicals over the next twenty-five years.
These illustrations by Homer are considered to be original graphic art in every sense of the word, just as a lithography by Picasso is considered original art. The term "limited edition graphic" means simply that the artist has produced a specified number of identical prints of a lithograph or engraving. Homer's work from these early periodicals falls into this category. They are wood engravings, wood cuts or wood blocks -- synonymous terms. The edition is limited to the number of periodicals produced, limited drastically in this case to those which have survived.
Institutions have increasingly tried to acquire these rapidly decreasing treasures. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a large collection, as do the fine art museums at Duke University and Dartmouth as well as the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. It is not surprising that private collectors are attempting to increase their holdings of this dwindling supply.
The amusing, fascinating and profitable thing about collecting Winslow Homer illustrations is that no one knows exactly what remains. What could be a more interesting challenge for antique print collectors, historians, art lovers and investors!
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Harper's Weekly (1857-1916)
Harper's Weekly has the happy coincidence of being the most important, as well as least rare periodical in which Homer appeared. A total of 147 woodcuts were done by Homer for Harper's Weekly, representing 55% of his total periodical work. In addition, the finest years of Homer's work (He peaked in 1873 and 1874) are well represented.
Harper's Weekly, not to be confused with Harper's Monthly, was a large-format (11" x 16") illustrated newspaper. Its large circulation plus its importance for those interested in Americana has enabled many copies to survive the ravages of time.
The Weekly can be found in single issue at an average price from $1 to $3 (however, they are often found at much higher prices). Some lucky collectors may even chance upon full-year bound volumes.
Homer's work appears in the Weekly from its first year (1857) when he was 22, and continues until 1875, when he began to devote himself almost exclusively to water colors and oils. Therefore, this magazine provides a great retrospective of the development of his talent. His earliest contributions were of seashore, city and country scenes. During the Civil War, he depicted the strife, not only in heroic war scenes, but also the effects of war behind the lines, on soldier and civilian alike. Later, his most successful illustrations tended to depict leisure time activities of the populace. By 1870, his illustrations had achieved great beauty and impact. With his excellent New England illustrations, he reached his zenith (1873-1874). To see and understand clearly the total development of Winslow Homer as an artist, his progress through the pages of Harper's Weekly is not to be missed and ought to form the cornerstone of any collection of his prints.
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