Largely self-taught, Homer began his career working as a commercial illustrator. He subsequently took up oil painting and produced major studio works characterized by the weight and density he exploited from the medium. He also worked extensively in watercolor, creating a fluid and prolific oeuvre, primarily chronicling his working vacations.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836, Homer was the second of three sons of Charles Savage Homer and Henrietta Benson Homer, both from long lines of New Englanders. His mother was a gifted amateur watercolorist and Homer’s first teacher.
She and her son had a close relationship throughout their lives. Homer took on many of her traits, including her quiet, strong-willed, terse, sociable nature; her dry sense of humor; and her artistic talent. Homer had a happy childhood, growing up mostly in then rural Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an average student, but his art talent was evident in his early years.
Homer’s father was a volatile, restless businessman who was always looking to “make a killing”. When Homer was thirteen, Charles gave up the hardware store business to seek a fortune in the California gold rush.
When that failed, Charles left his family and went to Europe to raise capital for other get-rich-quick schemes that didn’t materialize.
After Homer’s high school graduation, his father saw a newspaper advertisement and arranged for an apprenticeship. Homer’s apprenticeship at the age of 19 to J. H. Bufford, a Boston commercial lithographer, was a formative but “treadmill experience”.
He worked repetitively on sheet music covers and other commercial work for two years. By 1857, his freelance career was underway after he turned down an offer to join the staff of Harper’s Weekly. “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone”, Homer later stated, “I have had no master, and never shall have any.”
Homer’s career as an illustrator lasted nearly twenty years. He contributed illustrations of Boston life and rural New England life to magazines such as Ballou’s Pictorial and Harper’s Weekly at a time when the market for illustrations was growing rapidly and fads and fashions were changing quickly.
His early works, mostly commercial engravings of urban and country social scenes, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings—qualities that remained important throughout his career. His quick success was mostly due to this strong understanding of graphic design and also to the adaptability of his designs to wood engraving.
Before moving to New York in 1859, Homer lived in Belmont, Massachusetts with his family. His uncle’s Belmont mansion, the 1853 Homer House, was the inspiration for a number of his early illustrations and paintings, including several of his 1860s croquet pictures. The Homer House, owned by the Belmont Woman’s Club, is open for public tours.