Winslow Homer’ “Eight Bells” research paper

Winslow Homer is one of the most popular and well-known painters of the late 19th early 20th century. He produced a profound impact on the development of the art at large and painting in particular, while his works became extremely popular in his lifetime and still remain interesting for the audience due to their internal power and stylistic richness. Basically, Winslow Homer attempted to depict the world as he saw it and convey his own vision of the world to the audience. At the same time, it is important to underline that Winslow Homer focused on the depiction of nature, which occupies a significant part of his creative work. He developed his own unique technique and created a number of skillfully painted works, which were positively accepted by the mass audience as well as critics. However, it is hardly possible to estimate that, while creating his works, Winslow Homer though above all about the impression his works will produce on the audience. In actuality, he created his works and attempted to depict the world and nature in its vividness. He paid a lot of attention to the realism of his paintings, in which he often reflected the surrounding world in its extremes. In this respect, it is possible to refer to his probably one of the most popular works Eight Bells, in which Winslow Homer perfectly depicted the power of nature, which is almost overwhelming. In fact, this work may be viewed as a perfect sample of his later works, which were created in the late period of his artistic career. Eight Bells became the prominent work of Winslow Homer, which reflects the major trends that were typical for the late period of his work and, in a way it may be viewed as an accumulated combination of his artistic achievements and findings. The most remarkable feature of Eight Bells is the opposition between men and nature. In fact, this theme became one of the major themes of his later woks and he totally focused his attention on the relationship between people and nature. In Eight Bells, he lays emphasis on the power of nature, but, simultaneously, he opposes the power of human heroism, bravery and spirit to the power of the wild nature to the extent that event the stormy ocean cannot be viewed as a serious obstacle to the power of human spirit and bravery.

At the same time, it should be said that Eight Bells is not an absolutely unique work, which was created by chance or in the result of some insight and inspiration. In stark contrast, this painting became the result of a long-lasting professional career of Winslow Homer, which gradually changed and evolved to the extent that his later works were consistently more mature and skillfully created than his early works, which rather resembled experiments than professionally painted works. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that he started as a commercial illustrator. However, this work was not really interesting for Winslow Homer since he wanted to be a painter but not an illustrator. Nevertheless, even in this work he had revealed his gift and inclinations to painting, but h could not fully realize his potential, while working as an illustrator. In actuality, he needed to create real artistic works, instead of ordinary and routine illustrations, which though he attempted to make as original as possible. Gradually, he started to create his own original painting, in which he depicted the nature and surrounding world. Naturally, his early works were not very successful since he was not a professional painter. In fact, he was a self-taught artist and it is through his own experiments and searches he arrived to the moment when he had developed his own original style that became the basis for his works.

In this respect, it should be said that his style is particularly obvious in his mature works, created in the late 19th century. Obviously, Eight Bells is one of the most successful works of Winslow Homer in his late period. Basically, this work was created in the epoch when the development of new technologies had started to progress. To put it more precisely, Eight Bells was created in 1887 and this was the epoch when the US and leading countries of Europe was on their way to the rapid industrial and capitalist development. It was the era of the rapid industrial growth, formation of huge companies, many of which took monopolistic position in the market, and it was the epoch when the anthropocentric view on the world persisted or even started to strengthen due to the development of technologies.

In fact, it was quite a controversial epoch. On the one hand, there were numerous scientific findings, which debunked anthropocentric myths and emphasized the overwhelming power of nature which dominated over humans and could actually control the development of the entire planet and mankind. In this respect, the evolution theory developed by Charles Darwin was probably the most significant achievement of that epoch, which actually debunked old religious myths concerning the divine origin of human beings and laid emphasis on their natural origin and evolution. In fact, the evolution theory practically put humans in a row with other animals inhabiting the planet.

Naturally, in such a situation, the anthropocentric views were shattered consistently because humans had lost their exclusiveness in their origin and existence. On the other hand, there was the opposite trend. Firstly, it should be said that the new scientific findings of Darwin severely criticized and rejected by many people and scientists of that epoch. Secondly, the rapid development of technologies strengthened the belief of people that they can rule the world. To put it more precisely, the development of new technologies was so significant and technological improvements changed the life of people to such an extent that they could fully benefit from these technologies and cope with numerous challenges the nature imposed on them. In other words, the belief in the power of human mind and human genius grew stronger, to the extent that people started to believe that there is nothing in the world that can stop them.

In such a context, it is necessary to remind that traditionally nature was viewed as the major antagonist or source of new challenges for humans. People always lived in fear that the power of nature will destroy them. This belief was determined by the inability of humans to protect themselves from natural disasters and inability to overcome barriers created by nature, for instance oceans had remained an unsurpassable barrier for centuries. Nevertheless, by the late 19th century, the fear of humans in face of nature became weaker because humans became more powerful, their technologies permitted them to cover huge distances in an unprecedentedly short periods of time, their discoveries helped them better understand nature and themselves. As a result, there was less fear and more bravery and even heroism in humans in that epoch. By the way, the heroism in that epoch was also determined by the belief of people that they can achieve more positive results and improve their life consistently, but they needed to explore nature. Such a belief led to the formation of certain romanticism in relations between men and nature. At the same time, this romanticism emerged in the context of the almost permanent opposition of the power of nature, which was often destructive in relation to humans, and the power of human mind and technologies which could help people cope with challenges imposed on them by nature.

In fact, Winslow Homer had managed to convey this controversy of his epoch in his painting Eight Bells. Basically, this painting focuses on the depiction of the opposition of men and nature. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that Winslow Homer traditionally paid a lot of attention to nature, which became his major concern in the late period of his creative work. Eight Bells is the last picture of the series of great sea pictures that he had commenced three years before Eight Bells with his The Life Line. All these paintings in the series are united by the common theme and the focus of the artist on the sea. He intentionally emphasizes the greatness of the sea which he apparently associates with the power of nature. However, this trend may be traced in the later works created by Winslow Homer, such as The Sunlight on the Coast or The Gulf Stream, in which the artist masterfully conveys the power of nature. The similar motives may be traced in his work All’s Well, though in this painting the artist rather lays emphasis on humans than on nature and it is even possible to interpret it as a transformation of view of the artist to anthropocentrism. In this respect, Eight Bells is quite different from all the works mentioned above because there is no domination of a man or nature, which may be traced in other works of the artist. Instead, there is a kind of parity between the power of nature and the power or bravery of human beings.

On analyzing this painting, it should be said that the artist put in the foreground the two sailors that practically confront the stormy sea. At the same time, it is hardly possible to estimate that the two sailors dominate in the painting. In actuality, they are rather equally represented compared to the sea. Basically, this means that the author does not attempt to show the domination of either a man or nature. Instead, he shows them as almost equal and, in such a context, the depiction of the two sailors in the foreground is simply essential to convey their internal or spiritual power, their bravery and even some heroism. The sailors do their routine job and it seems as if they pay little attention to the sea. They feel secure and safe. At any rate, they are not nervous that implies that they get used to face the danger regularly and the stormy sea is not a reason to panic or grow nervous. Consequently, the sailors just do their job, even though the power of sea is strong enough to destroy them. Nevertheless, the painter attempts to show that the traditional belief in the power of nature and in the weakness of humans is already out of date. He shows the sailors, his contemporaries, as calm and brave people who are not afraid of the power of nature any more.

In stark contrast they believe in their own forces and power, their rationalism oppress their innate instincts and fears and they continue their routine work, in spite of all the dangers they may face in the sea.

In such a way, it is possible to estimate that the major message of the artist is the idea that the opposition between humans and nature has already reached the point when both nature and men have to respect each other and people should not have any fear in face of nature because they powerful enough, intellectually, physically and spiritually, to cope with the major challenges they may face in their daily life imposed on them by nature. In fact, this message seems to be quite logical in the context of his epoch because it was the time when profound changes in the life of human society started. It was the epoch of important scientific findings and discoveries which made people believe in their own forces and power and which, on the other hand, debunked myths concerning the power of nature. At the same time, the author does not underestimate the power of nature, but he rather views it as equal compared to the power and heroism of people.

Eight Bells became a prominent artistic work which had drawn the attention of the public and critics. The first reaction on this work was rather positive, though, it is worth mentioning the fact that there was certain skepticism, especially from the part of critics in relation to this painting[1]. The critics of that epoch laid emphasis on the mere realism of the painting and they argued that the artist skillfully depicted the protagonists of the painting, the two sailors, and, at the same time, he showed the greatness of sea, which actually were typical for his works of that epoch.

In fact, the latter was a kind of characteristic of his works of the late period and critics as well as the audience simply get used that Winslow Homer depicts the sea, often stormy and even a bit frightening, in his paintings. This is why the sea was perceived by critics as a natural part of Homer’s painting. At the same time, the focus of the artist on the sailors was probably a bit unusual because the nature, or the sea, did not dominate anymore in his painting since the sailors came in the foreground.

The modern critics, while analyzing Winslow Homer’s Eight Bells, often point out that the artist “has caught the color and motion of the greenish waves, white-capped and rolling, the strength of the dark clouds broken with a rift of sunlight, and the sturdy, manly character of the sailors at the rail. In short, he has seen and told in a strong painter’s manner what there was of beauty and interest in the scene.”[2]. In such a way, the modern critics pay a lot of attention to the skillfulness of the artist in his depiction of the nature and the sailors. It proves beyond a doubt that the technique of the artist was really unique and very interesting. Also, it should be said that he really attempted to develop a realistic view on the painting and his work should be viewed as a piece of realistic art.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that Winslow Homer produced a significant impact on the development of the art in the late 19th early 20th century. His Eight Bells became the personification of his late period style and it was a painting in which the artist managed to convey his view on the relationship between men and nature, which may be characterized by equality, which could hardly be traced in other works of Winslow Homer as well as other artists. In conclusion, it is important to underline that Eight Bells seems to be a very interesting and noteworthy painting.  Critics have already paid a lot of attention to this work and analyzed it in depth, but, in actuality, the painting is really profound and the further research and analysis of the painting is needed in order to better understand the implicit meaning of the painting and find possible hidden messages of the artist. At the same time, the style of the painting and skillful use of artistic details makes Eight Bells particularly interesting for the further research.

[1] Tatham, David. Winslow Homer and the Illustrated Book. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

[2] Cooper, Helen A., Winslow Homer Watercolors. Yale University Press, 1986.


Leave a Reply