Life-Size Black Bass

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Winslow Homer
American, 1836-1910

Life-Size Black Bass, 1904

Transparent watercolor, with touches of opaque watercolor, rewetting, blotting and scraping, over graphite, on thick, moderately textured (twill texture on verso), ivory wove paper (left, right and lower edges trimmed)
350 x 526 mm
Signed recto, lower left corner, in brush and black watercolor: “HOMER / 1904”

Inscribed verso, upper left corner, in pen and brown ink: “The Black Bass [covered by tape]/ No. 3”; center, in blue pencil: “17” [encircled]; center, in graphite: “c.23621” (bow drawn around inscription); lower right corner, in graphite, upside down: “1192 – IEE"; lower right corner: “13” [encircled]
Bequest of Brooks McCormick, 2007.115

In January 1904, Homer traveled to Homosassa, Florida, to fish. The Homosassa River, on the gulf side of the state, was home to many fish species and supported a lush wildlife habitat. It was in Homosassa that Homer painted his final tropical watercolors, including Life-Size Black Bass. In this work, the artist placed the underside of the huge, brightly colored fish at center and close to the viewer, bringing alive the drama, immediacy, and excitement of the fisherman’s experience as his fly, a “scarlet ibis,” hangs in the air. With trademark ambiguity, Homer presented the bass suspended between life and death. Will it succeed in grabbing its bright target only to seal its fate? The fish’s sudden jump slices through the dark, quiet jungle with a momentary flash of life and color.

In order to force the viewer into the path of the leaping fish, Homer cropped three centimeters off the lower edge of Life-Size Black Bass. He then centered and framed the fish for maximum effect by trimming a total of 2 centimeters from the right and left edges. The sheet dimensions are 350 x 526 millimeters; the original sheet dimensions were 380 x 545 millimeters as compared with uncut sheets of the same paper type. The trimmed edges appear slightly uneven and lack any adhesive residue from the watercolor paper block. As in a photograph with a short focal length, Homer presented the fish in tight focus against a vague and fluid background. With these compositional choices Homers heightened the tension of the strong, vital bass, frozen in motion, before capture and death. Such dramatic psychological impact results from Homer's three decades of persistent observation using watercolor to transcribe nature on paper.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Homer Centenary", July 16–August 16, 1936, as "Leaping Fish" [Chicago Daily Tribune, July 19, 1936].

Chicago, Terra Museum of American Art, "Two Hundred Years of American Painting from Private Chicago Collections," June 25-September 2, 1983, cat. 22.

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, "Winslow Homer Watercolors," March 2-May 11, 1986, pp. 232, 235, and 236, fig. 220, cat. by Helen Cooper; also traveled to Fort Worth, Tex., The Amon Carter Museum, June 6-July 27, 1986; and New Haven, Mass., Yale University Art Gallery, September 11-November 2, 1986.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light," February 16-May 11, 2008, pp. 194, 195 (ill.), 198, preface n. 40, cat. by Martha Tedeschi and Kristi Dahm.

Publication History

Theodore Bolton, “Water Colors by Homer: Critique and Catalogue,” The Fine Arts XVIII: 5 (April 1932), p. 54, as "Fish--Leaping Fish".

Eleanor Jewett, "Art Institute Is Presenting a Diversified Group of Exhibits," Chicago Daily Tribune, July 19, 1936, p. E10, as "Leaping Fish".

Winslow Homer's Florida, 1886-1909, exh. cat. (Jacksonville, Fla.: The Cummer Gallery of Art, 1977), p. 34, cat. 36 (ill.).

Patricia Junker and Sarah Burns, Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler, exh. cat. (Fort Worth, Tex.: Amon Carter Museum; San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2002), pp. 63, 86, 178-180, fig. 99.

Ownership History

Charles Deering (1852-1927) and Mrs. Charles Deering (née Marion Denison Whipple; c. 1857-1943), Chicago, by 1932 [Bolton 1932]. By descent to their daughter, Mrs. Chauncey McCormick (née Marion Deering; 1886-1965), Chicago. By descent to her son, Brooks McCormick (1917-2006), Chicago.