A history and simple analysis of a beautiful Winslow Homer painting. I love the idea from the last line: “The American artist N.C. Wyeth named his Port Clyde, Maine, home Eight Bells in honor of Homer’s painting. He installed a reproduction of the work in his living room.”
The painting’s title is a reference to nautical time, computed as one bell every thirty minutes. Although “eight bells” can be either 8 o’clock, 12 o’clock, or 4 o’clock, the painting refers to taking the “noon sight” at local apparent noon, a standard during the days of celestial navigation. Most other sights are made at dawn or twilight. More monumental than the three panels that preceded it, the two figures dominate the foreground of Eight Bells, and the details of the ship are minimally rendered. Homer has taken some artistic license, showing the figure at left using a sextant to take a reading of the sun, the other apparently reading the altitude of a completed sight on his sextant. In reality, both observers would have had their sextants to their eyes, rocking them back and forth to determine the highest elevation reached by the sun, thereby establishing local apparent noon. The moment is prosaic, yet it is presented as a heroic image.