Winslow Homer’s Odyssey
In the centennial year of the painter’s death, few historians would argue that he wasn’t one of the great realists of the ninete
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
Weatherbeaten Image Courtesy PMA/Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson/Photo by Melville D. McLean
Great Marine Artist Winslow Homer Is Dead,” reported the Portland Evening Express & Advertiser in its September 30, 1910 obituary. “At 74, Dies at Prouts Neck. Has Had Splendid Career.”
A splendid career, indeed. In this centennial year of Homer’s passing, few art historians would argue with Time art critic Robert Hughes’ judgment, upon the occasion of a major Homer retrospective in 1996, that “Homer was not just a fine American painter but one of the great realist artists of the nineteenth century as a whole, comparable in achievement to Manet or Courbet, if not Degas.”
In 1998, the art market seemed to confirm Homer’s status as America’s greatest artist when Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates paid what was then a world record price for a work by an American artist, $30 million, for Lost on the Grand Banks, a painting of two fishermen adrift in a hostile sea that was thought to be the last major Homer in private hands.
To mark the hundredth anniversary of Homer’s death, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) has mounted “Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place” (June 5 to September 6), an exhibition of some twenty paintings from the museum collection, chief among them being Weatherbeaten, one of the superb marine paintings that elevated Homer from a good painter to a great one. In addition, the Farnsworth and the Saco Museum will also be exhibiting their Homer works.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) would not, however, have been remembered as a marine artist at all, let alone the greatest American artist of the nineteenth century, had he not moved to Maine in 1883. If Homer’s career had ended prior to his moving to Prouts Neck in Scarborough, he might be remembered as an important graphic artist and as a painter of American genre scenes, yet not even one universally admired by the critics of his day.
Contemporary artists who feel misunderstood and unappreciated might take heart from the critical drubbing Homer took mid-career. One critic wrote that an early Homer seascape, Rocky Coast and Gulls (1868), “resembles the work of a boy who had dashed a spitball upon a newly papered wall.” Another pronounced Low Tide (1869) “unworthy of any collection of works of art.” “How an artist of acknowledged worth in a certain field of art could permit this horror to leave his studio” inveighed yet another critic against the same painting, “is simply incomprehensible to us.” Lobster Cove (1869), wrote a critic in the World, “represents nothing on or under the earth but a dirty door-mat.”
And it wasn’t just Homer’s early attempts to paint the sea that failed to find favor with the critics. The ruddy-faced schoolchildren and Bo-Peep shepherdesses of his fetching scenes of rural life were also ridiculed.
“We frankly confess that we detest his subjects,” wrote no less an arbiter of nineteenth-century taste than novelist Henry James in the Galaxy in 1875. “His barren plank fences, his glaring, bald, blue skies, his big, dreary, vacant lots of meadows, his freckled, straight-faced Yankee urchins, his flat-breasted maidens, suggestive of a dish of rural doughnuts and pie, his calico sunbonnets, his flannel shirts, his cowhide boots. He has chosen the least pictorial features of the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization . . . it is damnably ugly.”
Yet barely a quarter century later, Frederick W. Morton, writing in the April 1902 issue of Brush & Pencil, pronounced Winslow Homer “unquestionably the most strictly native painter America has produced” and “one of the greatest, if not the greatest.”
What had happened to change critical opinion? Even commentators of his day seemed to understand that it was Homer’s self-imposed exile on Prouts Neck.
“Had his life been less solitary,” wrote Frederick W. Morton, “perhaps his art would have been less individual.”
Whether the critical attacks or an unhappy love affair, rumors of which dog Homer to this day, had anything to do with it, Winslow Homer, a Bostonian by birth, began to withdraw from the New York art world after the 1870s.
In 1880, he moved to Ten Pound Island just off the shores of Gloucester, Massachusetts. A year later, he lived and painted in Cullercoats, a fishing village near the summer colony of Tynemouth, England.
“At Cullercoats he found a basic image,” wrote critic Robert Hughes, “man (or woman) against the sea, the self in the enormous, indifferent context of nature.”
Determined upon his return to the United States to find a similar remote coastal setting where he could pursue his vision of this man-against-the-sea existential drama, Homer recalled visiting Prouts Neck when his brother, Arthur, was honeymooning there in 1875. In 1883, the entire Homer clan — his father and mother, brother Charles, and Charles’ wife, Mattie, and Winslow — invaded Prouts Neck. The rocky promontory would become Homer’s primary residence for the rest of his life and the summer retreat of the Homer family to this day.
“Homer’s whole artistic life prior to 1883 was a period of preparation for greatness,” wrote Bowdoin College professor Philip C. Beam in his landmark 1966 study of Homer’s Maine life, Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck.
Winslow Homer was already well known by the time he moved to Maine. He had made important contributions to the development of the graphic arts with his Civil War engravings for Harper’s (more than four hundred of which PMA has recently had digitized), to the art of national identity with his scenes of rural life, and to the history of watercolor painting prior to 1883, but his place in art history is based largely on a steady stream of marine masterpieces he painted once he moved to Prouts Neck.
Homer’s earlier works look like sweet nothings compared to the elemental drama of paintings such as The Life Line (1884), Lost on the Grand Banks (1885), The Fog Warning (1885), Eight Bells (1886), Taking an Observation (1886), Weatherbeaten (1894), Wild Geese in Flight (1897), and The Gulf Stream (1899).
Homer scholar Elizabeth Johns, who won the 2005 Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art for Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation, agrees that Homer’s Prouts Neck paintings “are the source of his reputation for greatness, but he began to create them after many years of living.”
“I think Homer’s experience of the hardworking fisherfolk at Cullercoats on the northeast shore of England from 1881-1883 and his economic inability to marry as a young man led him to ponder nature itself at Prouts Neck,” writes Johns, a professor emeritus from the University of Pennsylvania, in an e-mail from her home in Hagerstown, Maryland. “During his mature years, he reveled in its power there, dramatizing it in his oil paintings. In his winters in the Caribbean, he paid tribute to nature’s color and beauty in watercolors. All the disappointments and experiences that he had known before came together in these great paintings.”
What the late, great Homer marine paintings possessed was a sense of isolation, alienation, loneliness, even threat that was palpably modern.
Homer’s life on Prouts Neck gave rise both to his greatest paintings and to what Philip Beam in Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck argues is “the distorted version of his personality, which seems to be so widespread.”
“Everybody knows,” wrote Beam, “that he was a recluse, a misanthrope, and a woman-hater, ill-mannered, abrupt, insulting, stubbornly self-sufficient — in short, a bad-tempered monster, who ignored other artists and refused to look at pictures, working out his own way of painting completely on his own, in hermit-like seclusion.”
Homer’s nephew Charles Lowell Homer, to whom Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck is dedicated, stated unequivocally in a personal reminiscence that “Uncle Winslow was not a crochity (sic) recluse who had been disappointed in love.”
Portland Museum of Art chief curator Thomas Denenberg believes Homer consciously cultivated an antisocial persona in order to be left alone to paint.
“When he gets here, he’s a very loud hermit,” says Denenberg. “He moves into the studio, and a year later he appears in the Boston paper as a hermit. Homer went to great pains not to depict the infrastructure that allowed him to paint. Prouts was a very rowdy place when Homer was living there.”
There were several inns on Prouts Neck when the Homers arrived. Over time the Homer family purchased close to two-thirds of the neck and was instrumental in developing it as an exclusive summer colony. But while it is true that Homer lived in a spartan little cottage heated only by a wood stove, his was hardly a subsistence existence.
A Beau Brummell who presented the tweedy image of an English country gentleman, Homer bought his suits from Brooks Brothers, ordered underwear and socks twelve dozen at a time, and had a standing order from Portland’s best tailor to deliver a new pair of trousers the first of every month.
He laid in the things he liked to eat in quantity — bushels of oranges and grapefruits, barrels of cider, local wild fowl, and, when he was too busy to cook, the Checkley House right next door would deliver.
Sensitive about his baldness, Homer is usually pictured wearing a hat. He is said to have turned down dinner invitations not because he was antisocial but because he didn’t like to have to take his hat off. He was so particular about his appearance that he often went to Boston just to get his hair cut.
“This is the only life in which I am permitted to mind my own business,” Homer once said of his bachelor life at Prouts Neck. “I suppose today I am the only man in New England who can do it. I am perfectly happy and contented.”
At Prouts Neck, Winslow Homer achieved both artistic and financial freedom.
“You will be glad to know,” he wrote in an April 1892 letter to his sister-in-law Mattie, “that I have also had great luck this past year and as Father tells me, I am rich.”
Three years later, the rich and famous recluse, the J.D. Salinger of his day, must have been feeling intimations of his own mortality when, in February of 1895, he wrote to his brother Charles, “I am very well with a birthday tomorrow. I suppose I may have fourteen more. (That was mother’s age, seventy-three years) and what is fourteen years when you look back. The life that I have chosen gives me many full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life. The sun will not rise, or set, without any notice, and thanks.”
In fact, Homer had fifteen more birthdays, dying of an apparent heart attack in his Prouts Neck studio after a lengthy illness. His remains were cremated and interred in the Homer family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There is no one alive today who remembers Winslow Homer. In 1936, on the centenary of his birth, however, Homer still had friends and, as today, relatives on Prouts Neck. That summer, the Prouts Neck Association itself mounted a centennial exhibition of seventy of his paintings in the Winslow Homer Studio and insured the collection for a then-whopping $250,000, a sum that would not purchase a single Homer painting today.
During the two weeks the exhibition was up, 2,200 people visited the Homer Studio, including painter N.C. Wyeth, down from Port Clyde, and painter Charles Woodbury, up from the Ogunquit art colony.
Given the extraordinary value of Homer paintings and the private nature of the gated summer community that Prouts Neck has become, such an in situ exhibition would be impossible today. “The thought of having original art there is just not going to happen,” says Charles Homer “Chip” Willauer, Homer’s great-grandnephew.
Chip Willauer’s grandfather acquired the Homer Studio for back taxes and put the deed in Willauer’s name back when he was only four years old. Willauer sold the Homer Studio to the Portland Museum of Art in 2006 for $1.865 million.
The Portland Museum of Art is now in the midst of an $8.365 million capital campaign to restore and endow the studio, which is expected to open to the public on a limited basis in 2012. The Homer family has kept the studio open by appointment for decades, but not everyone on the neck is crazy about the idea of the National Historic Landmark being open to the public.
“I think there are two schools of thought,” says Chip Willauer. “Some of the people in the community are very pleased about being part of a place where Winslow Homer painted. There are others who are not.”
According to Willauer, then-Portland Museum of Art Director Daniel O’Leary was “drawn and quartered” by some members of the Prouts Neck summer community who complained that their grandchildren “are going to be run over by the tour buses.”
To prevent the Winslow Homer Studio from becoming a public nuisance, the museum has entered into a lengthy agreement with the Prouts Neck Association. Current plans are for the studio to be open only during the spring and fall shoulder seasons and then only by reservation, requiring visitors to take a twelve-mile van ride with a docent from the museum to the studio.
Prouts Neck is a fine and private place. It was there that Homer found both the wild world of nature he celebrated in his most famous paintings and his refuge from the human society that made him so uncomfortable.
When he was painting in and around the studio, Homer would post a hand-lettered sign warning “Snakes, Snakes, Mice” to keep the curious away. So presumably the very private painter would approve of the measures being put in place to keep art lovers from disturbing the peace of the summerfolk.
“Yes,” agrees his great grandnephew. “Most assuredly.”
One hundred years after the death of Winslow Homer, the cold, inhospitable North Atlantic still pounds the rocky shores of Prouts Neck as it did in his day and will until the end of time. What pilgrims to this American art mecca will find at Prouts Neck is not Winslow Homer’s art, but what he found there — his inspiration.
IF YOU GO
The following museums are having Winslow Homer exhibits: PMA, 7 Congress Square, Portland, 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org; Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum St., Rockland, 207-596-6457, www.farnsworthmuseum.org; Saco Museum, 371 Main St., 207-283-3861, www.dyerlibrarysacomuseum.org.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem