ARTicles: The Herring Net

ARTicles give you a low-stress way to learn about art. Have something you don’t quite understand? Tell me and I’ll write about it. Don’t be scared; It’s supposed to be mysterious. Feel free to step away from the words, take a good look at the art, and see what meaning you find on your own.

Long ago, when Revels was fading into the miasma of post-grad stress and general disorganization, I received an ARTicles request for a Winslow Homer titled The Herring Net.

Last weekend, the fellow who suggested it got married, so I guess I was just waiting until the right time.

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The Herring Net, Oil on Canvas, 1885. Image courtesy The Art Institute Chicago.

A great example of the work Homer was famous for, The Herring Net was finished in 1885, soon after Homer moved into the studio in Prout’s Neck, Maine where he would finish his career and life. It’s a great example of the work the artist produced at the height of his painting career, which he started at Harper’s Bazaar. He spent time in Virginia documenting the Civil War for the publication and enjoyed success as an illustrator before ending up in Maine.

I didn’t know much about Homer’s background before researching this piece, yet his time on battlefields makes sense with his often dark and dramatic depictions of fishermen. The works are often seen as a sort of battle between man and the sea, illustrating “the struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile, transient human life to the timelessness of nature.”¹ Oftentimes more powerful than pretty, dynamic composition and muted colors lend a sense of struggle to Homer’s work. 

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Northeaster, Oil on Canvas, 1901. Image Courtesy The Met Museum.

This is semi-autobiographical. Homer spent years living by the seaside, starting in a English fishing village of Cullercoats, where he painted many lovely watercolors. Never a full-time fisherman himself, the artist spent years observing the town’s residents, documenting in watercolor. “He became sensitive to the strenuous and courageous lives of its inhabitants, particularly the women, whom he depicted hauling and cleaning fish, mending nets, and, most poignantly, standing at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their men.”² These works don’t have the same angst as The Herring Net, indicative of the churning seascapes Homer is famous for, but they have the same moodiness and lively gesture. 

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Girl carrying a basket, Watercolor over Graphite, 1882. Image Courtesy The National Gallery.

The Herring Net is in-between these intimate watercolors and the fury of his wave studies. There are human figures acting a part of the narrative, but it is infinitely less personal than the Cullercoats watercolor. The Herring Net’s figures don’t have faces; they take the role of fisherman rather than any personal identity. The girl carrying a basket hints a story specific to her rather than any overreaching theme of humankind’s struggle. The sea is barely featured, attention immediately drawn to the figure. Homer favors dynamic compositions, including a lot of diagonals, which could account for the energy in every work. There is a bit of tension to the watercolor that hints at what’s to come in the rough-and-tumble of The Herring Net

Homer relocated to Prout’s Neck, Maine, where his paintings turned away from people and toward the sea. I have more experience with Mainers than with American realism, honestly, and it seems like he embraced the Maine culture by growing to love the sea more than people. If you want to try struggling with the natural world, Maine is a great place to do it. It seems perfectly salty to abandon contemplative figure paintings to pursue an exploration of the ocean’s raw pathos.

To close out, I want to include my favorite Winslow Homer nugget, found on the PMA’s Homer timeline:

“Writes to his sister-in-law from Prouts Neck, ‘All is lovely outside my house and inside of my house and myself.’”

He died two years later, attended by his brothers.

If you’d like more salty art check out this dynasty:

NC Wyeth               .                   Andrew Wyeth                 .               Jamie Wyeth

If you lean more towards semi-abstracted wave shapes…

Robin Luciano Beaty

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