Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 24, 1836. He was the second of three sons. His mother was a gifted amateur watercolorist and Homer's first teacher. At the age of 19 he apprenticed to a Boston commercial lithographer. By 1857 he contributed to magazines such as Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly. His early (mostly commercial) works are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figures, qualities that remained important throughout his career.
In 1859 he opened a studio and began his painting career. Until 1861 he attended classes at the National Academy of Design. Homer was sent to the front lines of the American Civil War, where he sketched battle scenes and mundane camp life. Although the drawings hardly got any attention at that time, they marked Homer's transition from illustrator to painter. Back at his studio after the war, he set to work on a series of war-related paintings. Homer exhibited at the National Academy of Design.
Homer traveled to Paris in 1867 where he remained for a year. He practiced landscape painting. Although his interest in depicting natural light parallels that of the impressionists, there is no evidence of direct influence.
Throughout the 1870s Homer painted mostly rural or idyllic scenes of farm life, children playing, and young adults courting. He gained acclaim as a painter in the late 1870s and early 1880s.
In 1873 Homer started painting with watercolors. His watercolor paintings exhibit a spontaneous, loose, fresh, yet natural style.
In 1875 he quit working as a commercial illustrator. He traveled widely, spending two years in the English coastal village of Cullercoats, Northumberland, painting the local fisherfolk. Many of the paintings in England took as their subjects young women mending nets or looking out to sea.
Back in the U.S., he moved to Prout's Neck, Maine and painted the seascapes for which he is best known. These works strongly influenced succeeding generations of American painters for their energetic and direct interpretation of man's stoic relationship to a harsh wilderness.
In the winter Homer ventured to warmer locations in Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas. It was on these vacations that he experimented freely with the watercolor medium, producing works of the utmost vigor and subtlety.
Homer died on September 29, 1910 at the age of 74 in his studio.