For to Be a Farmer's Boy

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Winslow Homer
American, 1836-1910

For to Be a Farmer's Boy, 1887

Transparent and opaque watercolor, with rewetting, blotting, and scraping, heightened with gum glaze, over graphite, on thick, rough-textured ivory wove paper (lower edge trimmed)
355 x 509 mm
Signed recto, lower right, in black watercolor: "Winslow Homer/1887" [over old signature, blotted out: "Winslow Homer/1887"]
Gift of Mrs. George T. Langhorne in memory of Edward Carson Waller, 1963.760

For to Be a Farmer’s Boy was painted at Prout’s Neck, Maine, and is one of several watercolors in which Homer returned to his earlier theme of rural American childhood. Although the sky has faded and appears empty, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and FTIR analyses have yielded evidence that the artist originally painted the sky with dilute washes of chrome yellow and pink madder (both fugitive pigments), with a minute amount of vermilion, to create a glowing orange sunset. Thus, the watercolor originally showed a young boy pausing in his work of harvesting pumpkins to gaze off toward the setting sun, recalling the work of French Barbizon School artists, who influenced Homer in his early career. Their pictures of peasants pausing for a moment of contemplation at the end of their workday resonated with Homer, who showed a lifelong preference for depicting workers.

Homer derived the title from an anonymous Old English song: “Though little, I’ll work as hard as a Turk, / If you’ll give me employ /To plow and sow, and reap and mow, / And be a farmer’s boy.” Interestingly, a longer version of the song includes the line “The sun went down behind yon hills,” thereby supporting findings that the watercolor originally depicted an orange sunset.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, American Watercolor Society," Twenty-first Annual Exhibition," January 30–February 25, 1888, p. 22, cat. 360, as “For to be a Farmer’s Boy” (Old Song).

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Chicago Collectors," September 20–October 27, 1963, pp. 5 and 26, pl. 15.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light," February 16-May 11, 2008, pp. 68 n. 2, 118, 119 (ill.), 122, 212, 213, 214, cat. by Martha Tedeschi and Kristi Dahm.

Publication History

William Howe Downes, The Life and Works of Winslow Homer (New York, 1911), p. 281.

Gordon Hendricks, The Life and Work of Winslow Homer (New York, 1979), pp. 186, 191, and 285, pl. 28, fig. CL–103.

Laura Whipple, Celebrating America: A Collection of Poems and Images of the American Spirit (New York, 1994) (ill. cover).

Ann Keay Beneduce, A Weekend with Winslow Homer (New York, 1993), p. 52.

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, 2000), p. 89 (ill.).

Miles Unger, The Watercolors of Winslow Homer (New York, 2001), pp. 123 and 219 (ill.).

William Mullen, “Beneath the Color, Secrets of an Artist,” Chicago Tribune (February 29, 2008) (ill.).

Robert M. Poole, “Hidden Depths,” Smithsonian Magazine 39: 2 (May 2008), p. 90.

Ownership History

Mr. and Mrs. Edward C. Waller, Sr. (née Mary Kirk; died 1963), Chicago, c. 1890; by descent to their daughter, Mrs. George T. Langhorne (née Mary Kirk Waller), Chicago; given to the Art Institute, 1963.