Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836. In 1859, Homer began working as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly magazine, where he gained recognition for his visual reportage of the Civil War. Working initially in lithographs, Homer transitioned to oil painting after taking some classes at the National Academy of Design. Many of his works dramatize the conflict between man and nature, employing watercolor as well as oils for formal experimentation. Renowned for his seascapes and his depictions of pastoral American life, Homer holds a critical position in the canon of nineteenth-century American art.
In 1885, Winslow Homer travelled to the Caribbean, commissioned by Century Magazine to produce a series of watercolors. His first stop, after Florida, in the Bahamas, produced a series of sketches, drawings, and watercolors, culminating in masterpieces as Sponge Fishing; sketches along the way to his next destination of Santiago, Cuba, produced Gulf Stream. While Homer’s time in the Bahamas focused mainly on life at the water’s edge, in Santiago, he was fascinated by the city – its Spanish-style architecture, the urban foliage; and, to a degree, its inhabitants. In February of 1885, Homer wrote to his brother, Charles:
Here I am fixed for a month . . . The first day sketching I was ordered to move on until the crowds dispersed. Now I have a pass from the Mayor ‘forbidding all agents to interfere with me when following my profession.’ [as quoted by Abigail Gerdts in Record of Works by Winslow Homer, Volume 4.2. 1883 through 1889, p. 374].
Perhaps the interference of local constabulary contributed to the absence of crowds in Homer’s depictions of Santiago: the body of work from his stay there represents almost exclusively empty streets. A few sojourns beyond the city walls focused on the foliage of the mountainside. A handful of watercolors present streets sparsely peopled, and two present a single figure. The first has been described as a portrait of the wife of the governor of Santiago de Cuba (collection of the Museum of Art , Rhode Island School of Design, Providence). The other is the present work, Spanish Girl with a Fan. The identity of the girl is unknown, but Homer was clearly fascinated with her exotic attire. He seems to have been absorbed in the strangeness of all of Cuban-Spanish culture, from ironwork balconies, stucco walls, and the light dresses of women. This picture places the figure, looking coquettishly out of the frame, in front of an equally exotic frieze of palm fronds, their jagged edges echoing the exoticism of the fan and its owner.
Evidently Homer parted with this work at one point before apparently buying it back from Knoedler. Abigail Gerdts observed:
On 11 April 1907 Homer wrote Knoedler & Company: "I received the Lady of Santiago also your bill for the two frames -- Enclosed please find payment $236." Knoedler's records include the notation of the sale of "Spanish Girl" to Homer for $150. (making the cost of the frames about $40 each). Unfortunately, in this instance, Knoedler made no reference to the source from which they obtained the watercolor. The gallery kept detailed records concerning works Homer sent to them for sale, those which were sold, and those returned to the artist. The careless notation of the passage of this watercolor though the gallery is exceptional, and suggest it had no financial stake in the transaction, but handling the matter as a favor for Homer. The Work has no earlier history; there is no indication it had been exhibited. Whoever had the work, and however he came by it, the implication is that it was offered to Homer through Knoedler -- at a price [Abigail Gerdts, Lloyd Goodrich, Record of Works by Winslow Homer, Volume 4.2. 1883 through 1889, p. 371, no. 1308].
The present work has been requested for an upcoming exhibition of Winslow Homer's work in Cuba at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The artist; to [M. Knoedler & Co., New York, 1907]; The artist, by purchase; to By bequest to Charles S. Homer, Jr.; to By bequest to Mrs. Charles S. Homer, Jr., 1917; to By bequest to Arthur. P. Homer, 1937; to Lois Homer Graham (Mrs. Horace Graham), Poughkeepsie, New York (as a gift), 1939; to [Spanierman Gallery, New York, 1990]; to Private collection, until the present
Abigail Gerdts, Lloyd Goodrich, Record of Works by Winslow Homer, vol. 4.2, New York: Spanierman Gallery, 1883-1889, p. 371, no. 1308
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