Sunset Fires Winslow Homer Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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This bright, striking piece is known as Sunset Fires and was completed by Winslow Homer in 1880. The main two elements of this piece is the large ship in the foreground, plus the use of red paint which contrasts against an otherwise dimly lit composition.

This small artwork may not be amongst the artist's most famous paintings but it is important because it suggested at the future direction that Homer would take in the coming years. He would devote himself to seascapes during the 1880s, having taken on other genres in previous decades. He was initially an illustrator before learning the techniques of oil painting, followed by watercolours. He adored the landscape of the US and promoted its beauty through many artworks across his career. He incorporated human figures into some of these depictions, but others allowed nature to take the full focus. In this piece we find a fusion of humanity and nature, with the inclusion of sailors within a ship and smaller boat which head off to our right hand side. We also have an expanse of lake or sea which spreads across the horizontal as well as a flurry of blue/grey paint which completes the sky above. Detail is kept to a minimum, suggesting that Sunset Fires was actually completed in a very short period and may even have been treated as more of a study piece.

Homer tended to produce his oil paintings from his own studio, working from drawings made whilst travelling around. His watercolours could be completed at the same time, though, and that is why many watercolour artists have worked in the landscape and seascape genres. One can transport the necessary tools in a small bag and work quickly, and this also leaves something of a crossover between drawing and painting, where a study in watercolour can be classed in either category. Homer would travel across the US in search of new ideas for his work and eventually travelled further afield, including to the UK and also the Caribbean. This brought different content into his work and also led to variations in his tone. By the end of his career, he had produced a great breadth of work which would influence many later artists all across the US.

The painting can be found at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, having been gifted to the institution by the William A. Coulter Fund (some sources actually state that this watercolour is instead on display at the Yale University Art Gallery). The gallery itself is based in Greensburg, Pennsylvania and whilst not being the highest profile of venues in the country, there are still a number of major artists on display within their permanent collection. These include the likes of John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent, Benjamin West and Childe Hassam, with a strong focus on American art to be found here. The venue was set up in 1959 and it remains a popular attraction within the state. The likes of Winslow Homer are helpful to small venues such as this because of how prolific they were, meaning hundreds of items are left over from their career, across a variety of mediums. The lesser known pieces can then be more affordable and accessible outside of the larger, national galleries. Homer himself worked in illustrations, watercolours, oils and etching.

Sunset Fires in Detail Winslow Homer