Eight Bells

Eight Bells
Artist Winslow Homer
Year 1886
Medium Oil on canvas
Location Addison Gallery of American Art
Dimensions 25.2 in × 30.1 in
64.1 × 76.5 cm
Famous Paintings by Winslow Homer
Snap the Whip
The Gulf Stream
Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)
Right and Left
The Fox Hunt
Eight Bells
The Life Line
The Herring Net
The Blue Boat
Complete Works

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Winslow Homer became a great American artist, who was most famous for painting landscapes and printmaking. Homer is best known for his paintings pertaining to the sea. Homer began painting in watercolor, and ended his career in oil paintings.

In 1883, when Homer moved to Prout’s Neck Maine, his family’s home was just seventy-five feet from the ocean, giving him a new subject of concentration. Continuing through the 1880’s, Homer painted his esteemed sea scenes, such as his famous oil on canvas painting, Eight Bells.

Eight Bells Origination

Homer’s nautical painting Eight Bells, was originally a series of oil paintings made on three wooden panels. He happened to find these three panels of wood in the cabin of his brother’s sailboat in Maine. On two of the panels, he painted one scene of mackerels at dawn on the first, and the mackerels at dusk on the second. On the third panel, he painted a grisaille, or monochrome sketch of what was later to inspire Eight Bells.


The title Eight Bells refers to nautical time measurement, with one bell every thirty minutes. Eight bells can mean eight o’clock, noon, or 4 o’clock. Homer’s painting Eight Bells depicts the noon hour, with two sailors pictured in a stormy sky, and rough, choppy sea, navigating their boat’s position with a sextant. Homer painted very little detail of the ship, focusing on the human factor, and the force of nature. His mixture of color and brushstroke are so effective that the viewer can see the waves in the ocean, the sailor’s coats blowing, and the very ominous-looking sky above.

Eight Bells seems to transcend realism, revealing a heroic element in the painting. The painting focuses the eye on the subjects, the strong and confident sailors at the rail, concluding that these heroic men can conquer even the violent and stormy sea. More complex than a naturalist’s painting, Eight Bells captures the rolling, greenish sea with its white caps, and the dark clouds, breaking only to offer a glimpse of blue sky in the distance.

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