The Water Fan

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Winslow Homer
American, 1836-1910

The Water Fan, 1898/99

Watercolor, with blotting and touches of scraping, over graphite, on thick, rough twill-textured, ivory wove paper
374 x 534 mm
Signed recto, lower right, in brush and black watercolor: "Homer"

Inscribed verso, lower left edge, in graphite: "7073"; upper center, in graphite: "The Water Glass/Nassau"
Gift of Dorothy A., John A., Jr., and Christopher Holabird in memory of William and Mary Holabird, 1972.190

The Water Fan depicts a young black man intently searching for coral using a glass-bottomed bucket. Referred to as a “water glass” or “sponge glass,” this device was used to stabilize the surface of moving water in order to improve visibility. Homer may have been attracted to the subject because it draws attention to the constantly moving surface of the water as well as its transparency, aspects of the sea that especially intrigued him in the Bahamas. Like The Sponge Diver (1898/99; MFA Boston), this work originally had more visible red washes in the water, hinting at the pink coral beneath the surface. While these areas have faded, the fluid strokes of darker blue over layers of transparent turquoise are effective in suggesting the play of light, both direct and reflected, over water.

Homer depicted light shimmering on the ocean using watercolor paper with a heavy twill texture in The Water Fan. The diagonal pattern of the sheet, which runs from top right to lower left, was imparted during manufacture by the papermaker’s woven wire screen that supported the paper pulp during sheet formation. The opposite side is relatively smooth. A truncated watermark reading “J WHAT,” for J Whatman, the manufacturer, reads from the textured side, indicating the side intended for painting.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Chicago, J.W. Young Galleries, "Ten Watercolors by Winslow Homer," opened January 11, 1908, no. 8, no cat.

Tucson, Ariz., The University of Arizona Art Gallery, "Yankee Painter: A Retrospective Exhibition of Oils, Water Colors, and Graphics by Winslow Homer," October 1–December 1, 1963, pp. 55 and 84, cat. 62 (ill.).

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, "Winslow Homer," April 3–June 3, 1973, p. 141, cat. 152, cat. by Lloyd Goodrich; also traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum, July 1–August 15, 1973; and The Art Institute of Chicago, September 8–October 21, 1973.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Great Drawings in The Art Institute of Chicago: The Harold Joachim Years 1958–83," July 27–September 22, 1985, pp. 172–73, cat. 79 (ill.), cat. by Martha Tedeschi.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light," February 16-May 11, 2008, pp. 15, 180, 181 (ill.), 185, 211, cat. by Martha Tedeschi and Kristi Dahm.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, "American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent", February 23 - May 14, 2017, pp. 314-316, cat. 265 (ill.), cat. by Kathleen A. Foster.

Publication History

Lloyd Goodrich, Winslow Homer (New York, 1959), p. 29, pl. 85.

Patti Hannaway, Winslow Homer in the Tropics (Richmond, 1973), pp. 236–37, pl. 48.

Gordon Hendricks, The Life and Work of Winslow Homer (New York, 1979), p. 286, fig. CL–122.

James N. Wood and Debra N. Mancoff, Treasures from The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, 2000), p. 180 (ill).

Megan Holloway Fort, “Current and coming,” The Magazine Antiques 173: 2 (February 2008), pp. 14 (ill.).

Ownership History

The artist to James W. Young, Chicago, 1907; sold by J.W. Young Galleries, Chicago, to William (1854–1923) and Mary (Mrs. William) Holabird, c. 1908 [according to correspondence from Abigail Booth Gerdts to the Art Institute, February 10, 2007]; by descent to their son, John A. Holabird (1886–1945); by descent to his wife, Dorothy (1897–1988); given to the Art Institute, 1972.