The University of New York had fallen on such hard times that rooms in its building on Washington Square were rented for lodgings, and a group of eminent artists who had their studios there invited Homer to join them. The building itself was a Gothic tower of dull-brown marble, resembling a medieval jail, with long dim corridors and steep stairs. Homer's room was on the fourth floor, with a single window looking out over the treetops in the park. It was a gloomy place. The first artist who lived there committed suicide by jumping from the tower. But Homer was rarely depressed, traveling to a dance at West Point, a horse race at Saratoga or the beach at Newport. The technique used by the pictorial journals was wood engraving. The sketch was transferred to a square of boxwood. The white spaces were cut away, leaving only the lines of the drawing itself. If in writing a letter you cut away the paper to leave just the letters, the difficulty would be comparable. Professional cutters transferred the artists' pictures to the wood blocks, but Homer's room had a shaving-filled, workshop look to it, nonetheless. Around him less occupied artists loafed and gossiped. "One of you boys fill my pipe for me; I'm too busy," he would say.
The Civil War interrupted this life. Homer made three trips to the front for Harper's, and his first great oil painting, Prisoners from the Front, suddenly made him as famous as an artist as he had been as a magazine illustrator. After the war he spent several months in Paris.
The record of Homer's adult fishing begins after his return from France; he spent the summers of 1868 and 1869 in the White Mountains, fishing the headwaters of the Merrimack. He moved next in the fall and winter of 1869 to the newly discovered angling paradise of the Adirondacks. In 1864 Thaddeus Norris had published the first comprehensive American work on fly fishing, Trout Fishing in the Adirondacks, and Homer went to Keene Valley on the Ausable River, the place that Norris had praised most highly
From Keene Valley a trail ran up Johns Brook around Mount Marcy, the highest Adirondack peak. The trail was hacked out by a hunter known as Old Mountain Phelps, who became a Homer model in the wilderness scene, Two Guides. Next Homer and a fellow artist, John Fitch, went to a farm southwest of Mount Marcy, set in a country of streams and beaver ponds where Winslow would fish on and off for the rest of his life. Eliphalet Terry, a friend of Fitch's who had abandoned a career as a landscape painter to become a woodsman, had built a cabin here near the village of Minerva. The farm subsequently became known as the North Woods Club, but then it was only a logged-off hilltop clearing, stumps dotting the fields. The journey from New York was long—the night boat to Albany, a train to Saratoga, a 50-mile stagecoach ride to Chestertown on the Schroon River, then a day-long wagon ride over mountain roads.
The first of Homer's fishing pictures to be published was The Fishing Party in Appleton's Journal, another weekly rival of Harper's, in the autumn of 1869. He was back at the Minerva farm the next summer, the year of his esteemed Adirondack Lake, which depicts a fisherman on a fallen tree outlined against shining water. Some time after this Homer persuaded the wife of the lighthouse keeper at Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor to take him as a boarder, and since the only communication with the mainland was by dory he had all the seclusion he wanted to paint and to fish. He made a major financial sacrifice in so concentrating his work.
Until 1875 Homer continued to contribute occasional pieces to Harper's, such as a sketch when he was summoned for jury duty. The magazine paid him $60 a page and took all the illustrations he could turn out. But in the early '70s Harper's began to battle the Tweed Ring, which had collected $200 million in graft. Thomas Nast, with his savage cartoons, soon replaced Homer as the magazine's leading illustrator.
Homer's fishing and harbor watercolors, which he was slowly producing, sold well enough when they were eventually exhibited in Boston, bringing in $75 to $125 each, but it was a low-paid business compared to magazine illustrating. For his etching Fly Fishing, Saranac Lake he got only $15.
In Homer's fishing scenes action and tranquillity were often fused, as in the portrait of Eliphalet Terry that he painted when he returned to the Adirondacks in 1874. A portrait as such was not enough for Homer; he pictured Terry fishing from a boat, his dog beside him. A fish has just struck, and in the instant of arrested action Terry is preparing to play the fish and the dog is staring intently at the water. On the same trip Homer came back with Waiting for a Bite, a summer scene of three boys loafing on an uprooted tree, their lines in a weedy pond.
Homer had become a master fly-fisherman although the sport was still almost unknown in the U.S. "He did not go in for expensive or elaborate tackle," his brother Charles said, "but he usually caught the biggest fish." A contemporary remembered his skill in casting among the lily pads in the backwaters of the Squannacook River in Massachusetts, and his adroitness in playing fish, which he seldom failed to land. He fished in places then unknown, or little known, that later would become famous, such as the region near Hurley in the Catskills. He spent two summers there. The nearby rivers—the Esopus, the Beaver Kill, the Neversink, the Rondout—were to be celebrated 20 years later in the writings of Theodore Gordon. Homer painted only one of the streams, the lesser-known Saw Kill.
In 1883 Homer left New York for good. Various reasons were given for his leaving—an unhappy love affair, too much social life, too much drinking—but he shrugged off such rumors and said it was simply to avoid jury duty. He had been called for one month's service every year since his sketch of jurors appeared in Harper's 14 years before. After he moved to Prout's Neck, he often took great pleasure in calculating that he saved one year of his life in every 12 by being out of New York.