Digital Simulation: Original appearance of The Sponge Diver

The Sponge Diver, 1898-99. Watercolor, over graphite, on moderately thick, moderately rough, cream wove paper; 38.0 x 54.3 cm (15 x 21 3/8 in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Mrs. Robert B. Osgood, 39.621.

In 1898 Homer made striking and unexpected use of a red lake pigment (now faded) in The Sponge Diver (1898/99; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to describe the color of the Caribbean Sea. After painting, he used his pencil to draw new borders for the composition, cropping approximately four centimeters from the left, right, and lower edges. These margins never faded because they were always covered by a mat or frame that protected them from light. The stunning, unfaded red and magenta brushstrokes visible in the margin once extended across the water, as suggested in the digital simulation. Because no unfaded reds are present in the sky, it appears that the red color of the sea is not intended to represent a reflection from above. Since Homer strove to record nature exactly as he saw it, he may have been describing a red-purple coral reef or dense aquatic plants that reflected their color upward through the water.

This digital simulation was created using Adobe Photoshop CS3 software. Stereomicroscope examination of the piece determined the boundaries of the faded red washes. These areas were digitally selected and filled with a semi-transparent red layer that was adjusted to match Homer’s original magenta hues preserved along the margins. No analysis of the faded red pigment was carried out, but a good visual match was found using L*a*b* values for the pigment cochineal carmine. This pigment was found in The Water Fan, painted on the same Caribbean trip, and was identified in one of his extant watercolor boxes.

Digital simulation of The Sponge Diver, suggesting how Homer used red and magenta brushstrokes to describe the red-purple color of a coral reef or dense aquatic plants.