Who is the “GOAT” watercolor artist, Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent? (For non-sports fans, “GOAT” is the acronym for who is the “greatest of all time.”) No other painter has ever come close to their Olympian heights for mastery of devilishly tricky watercolor, their ability to capture an immediate moment with a drawn line, their diversity of subject matter, nor their depiction of light and shadow in nature. In addition to Homer and Sargent’s watercolor skills, they were masters of oil painting.
Spoiler: I’ll argue that Homer is “GOAT” over Sargent every time because Homer addresses alienation and loss, the major human problems of our modern age.
Curator of “Watercolors Unboxed,” Nancy Kathryn Burns places paintings by Homer and Sargent side-by-side with similar topics, therefore, the comparison between the two is easy to make. To add to the competitive fun, “The Rope” by Andrew Wyeth is next on the wall, and he comes in a distant third.
Let’s begin the competition with Homer’s 1904, “Fishing Boats, Key West,” and Sargent’s 1917, “Boats at Anchor.” Both are technically brilliant watercolors with no white-outs, over painting, perspective mistakes or muddy spots. Neither artist needed to dip into opaque white paint to add highlights. Contemporary watercolorists, even those winning awards at national juried exhibits, can only dream of such technical success. The subject matter for both paintings are small sailing craft at dock. So why is Homer’s “better?” Sargent’s boat is all about details, and mast hoops, sails, and sunlight on water. The composition is confused, the image cluttered. By contrast Homer’s boat is about one blazing white shaft of sunshine, glancing for a single moment off a single boat. It is about isolation and a fleeting moment of time that will not be repeated. Beyond the boat’s white brilliance is a diminishing line of spiking black masts of other boats, almost like a menacing fence against a gray sky. Homer’s boat is about a “moment,” Sargent’s is about a “memory.”