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Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer's expanding skills from illustrator to painter. Like with his urban scenes, Homer also illustrated women during wartime, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, Homer would regain his strength and re-focus his artistic vision. He set to work on a series of war-related paintings based on his sketches, among them Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), Home, Sweet Home (1863), and Prisoners from the Front (1866). He exhibited paintings of these subjects every year at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866. Home, Sweet Home was shown at the National Academy to particular critical acclaim; it was quickly sold and the artist was consequently elected an Associate Academician, then a full Academician in 1865. During this time, he also continued to sell his illustrations to periodicals such as Our Young Folks and Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner.
With homeownership the family aspiration, Dad, a housepainter, always sought opportunities to work overtime. — Bill Cummings, BostonGlobe.com, "Dad taught me the art of negotiating when I was just a kid," 24 May 2018 At the outset, a Hanson housepainter embodies the relationship between three-dimensional art and life, fact and fiction. — Karen Wilkin, WSJ, "A Morbid, Engaging Body of Work," 26 Mar. 2018 Rosenthal was the youngest of six children of a Bronx housepainter who emigrated from Belarus. — Alex S. Jones, Town & Country, "Will the Rivalry Between the Washington Post and New York Times Save Journalism?," 9 Aug. 2017
Homer's career as an illustrator lasted nearly twenty years. He contributed illustrations of Boston life and rural New England life to magazines such as Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly at a time when the market for illustrations was growing rapidly and fads and fashions were changing quickly. His early works, mostly commercial engravings of urban and country social scenes, are characterized by clean outlines, simplified forms, dramatic contrast of light and dark, and lively figure groupings—qualities that remained important throughout his career. His quick success was mostly due to this strong understanding of graphic design and also to the adaptability of his designs to wood engraving.
Throughout the 1870s, Homer continued painting mostly rural or idyllic scenes of farm life, children playing, and young adults courting, including Country School (1871) and The Morning Bell (1872). In 1875, Homer quit working as a commercial illustrator and vowed to survive on his paintings and watercolors alone. Despite his excellent critical reputation, his finances continued to remain precarious. His popular 1872 painting Snap-the-Whip was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as was one of his finest and most famous paintings Breezing Up (1876). Of his work at this time, Henry James wrote:
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