Down East 2013 ©
By Deborah Weisgall
Image Courtesy Portland Museum of Art, Maine/Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson
Winslow Homer’s studio on Prouts Neck looks out across two rocky islands to the open ocean. On the southern wall of the first floor of this studio there is one horizontal window, set at eye level, a luminous rectangle against the dark wooden walls of the room, and through it you can see those narrow outcroppings of ledge slicing an expanse of water. The window is about the size and shape of several of Homer’s magnificent late works — Weatherbeaten, Prouts Neck in Winter, West Point, Prouts Neck — those images of the coast he painted after moving to Maine from New York in 1883.
Looking out the window in the newly restored studio is like witnessing one of those paintings happening in real time — like watching a work in progress. The window frames Homer’s intention: to observe the energies of water and light and atmosphere, the collision of land and ocean. In his later works, Homer invented an intimate and muscular way of representing implacable nature. His vision of the diminished significance of humans evolved during his years on Prouts Neck and culminated in those seascapes.
The paintings are passionate, objective, Darwinian: the only redemption is a break in the weather. Homer’s contemporaries recognized in them America’s character, an expression of the country’s raw, burgeoning economic power, as well as the risks of that power. They were astonished by his boldness with paint. Homer’s artistic descendants, including Marsden Hartley and Rockwell Kent, saw in that work the beginnings of modernism.
The Portland Museum of Art bought the studio from Homer’s descendants in 2005, and starting September 25, after extensive renovations, it is opening to the public.
Weatherbeaten, named after Homer’s great painting, is a concurrent exhibition at the museum of works Homer produced in that studio. The show traces Homer’s gradual stripping of human beings and their narrative from his work: from the implied story in Eight Bells, in which two seamen take a sextant reading, righting their course in the wake of a storm, to the elemental timelessness of Weatherbeaten itself: waves pounding and pooling against an impassive ledge.
The Boston-born painter, raised in that city’s atmosphere of Transcendentalism and abolitionism, had made his reputation with images of the Civil War — beginning with engravings for Harper’s Weekly, some of which he turned into paintings that brought home the war’s urgent moral stakes. For nearly two decades after the war, he painted roughhousing boys, girls picking apples, green pastures — an America at peace and happy to ignore the failures of emancipation.
For Homer that was not enough. Searching for a subject, in 1881 and 1882 he lived in Cullercoats, an English fishing village on the North Sea coast. In her perceptive essay for the exhibition catalogue, Erica Hirshler says that the village is where “a good artist became a great one.” Homer found there an urgency in the sea and the difficult lives of the local fisherwomen, whose monumental forms billow — ephemeral as clouds, insubstantial as sails — across the cliffs and beaches in his watercolors.
When Homer came home to America, he moved to Maine for the same qualities of stripped-down landscape that had galvanized him at Cullercoats. He had visited Prouts Neck before, and its beaches and cliffs, its oblique light, and apparent remoteness, lured him back. In this studio that seems to perch at the edge of the world, Homer filled his paintings with a geography of precarious, willed solitude. His studio became his vantage point, where he watched weather and tides and absorbed their patterns and rhythms.
Homer also turned it into the setting for a story he invented about himself: Homer the hermit. He was turning his back on society; he was going to paint what he pleased. Soon after he moved into his studio, an article appeared, entitled, “The Strange Hermitage of Winslow Homer on the Maine Coast.”
That fiction was, like his art, a series of careful eliminations. Relieved of a century of family clutter and beautifully restored to its condition when Homer lived in it, the studio suggests much of what Homer eliminated, both from his art and from his life. It is a potent place that provides clues to the magnitude of Homer’s achievement. At the same time it questions the myth.
For starters, the studio is hardly isolated; it is smack in the middle of a dense and wealthy summer colony — a community that was developed by Homer’s father and older brother, Charles Savage Homer, Jr. It sits close by his brother’s big house, the Ark, and right across the street from the wooden Gothic church Homer’s father decided would enhance the development. (And remember, even that other famous American hermit, Henry David Thoreau, moved only a mile from home.) All his life, Homer, who never married, remained tied to his family and its financial vicissitudes (his father had lost everything mining in the California Gold Rush). The truth is that Homer moved to Maine as part of a family business venture. Clearly, he influenced the choice of location.
Homer was a well-known, successful artist, aware that his connection with Prouts Neck would increase its attractiveness as a summer retreat. Homer’s father and Charles, Jr., whose chemical company invented the marine varnish Valspar, began buying land on Prouts Neck in 1882. They believed that the knob of land jutting into Saco Bay, near Portland and convenient to the railroad, was ripe for development. Homer’s maternal uncle, Arthur Benson, had recently bought ten thousand acres on Long Island in New York, and hired Frederick Law Olmsted to lay out the landscaping and Stanford White to design the houses. The Montauk Association of Easthampton was a success, as was Prouts Neck. Today, eighty houses and a hotel jam the small peninsula. By agreement with the Portland Museum of Art and the Prouts Neck Association, Homer’s studio is closed to the public from June 15 through Labor Day, when summer is in full swing.
The Homers could not afford the kind of established talent Arthur Benson bought; instead they engaged a young architect, John Calvin Stevens, who was working in a Portland firm. Stevens went on to become one of the foremost exponents of the Shingle style of architecture and a master in his own right. By 1910 he had designed eighteen houses on Prouts Neck, beginning with houses for the Homers. By the time he designed a second house for Winslow Homer, in 1894, Stevens could ask for a painting instead of a fee (the haunting Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog).
When he decided to move his studio to Maine, Winslow Homer had Stevens move his brother’s carriage house, the Ark, to a small rise. (The family was close but kept careful accounts; Homer paid his brother for the land with money from the sale of a painting.) Stevens remodeled the carriage house and added a porch the width of the second floor on the ocean side.
For the rest of his life Homer contemplated the sea and the slick, dark ochre cliffs from that porch. From it, your eye skips over the lawn to the rocks at the shore: to the perpetual, mesmerizing drama. A lattice screen on one side blocks out the hulk of the Ark. No windows face the road, and during Homer’s lifetime, a fenced garden hid one of the windows of his painting room from prying rusticators. Homer also posted a sign warning of “snakes, snakes, and mice,” which visitors to his studio can still see.
And there was some truth in the myth of solitude. Unlike many contemporary artists with summer studios, Homer worked in Maine through December, before leaving, most years, for warmer places. What he saw and began painting in Cullercoats — the brutal, beautiful cycles of the natural world — ripened in Prouts Neck, with its seasonal emptiness. He understood that wilderness existed, more and more, as an idea, a state of mind. That is what he painted. The first season he made watercolor sketches of the coastline, places that he came back to again and again over the next quarter of a century.
In 1884, The Life Line, the first major work he made in his Prouts Neck studio, created a sensation when it was shown in New York. A line and pulley cross the canvas; a man clutches a limp woman, and the sea swirls and heaves. There is no foundering ship, no rescue boat or cleat on solid ground, no way of knowing if the woman is alive or dead. We are held, too, suspended in the moment, in unrelenting, endless movement. It is almost too much, but the faces of the two figures are blurred; we cannot read their expressions. In Eight Bells, the sailors in their sou’westers have turned their backs. Each is as specific and as anonymous as a wave.
While he continued to paint figures — and some Cullercoats fisherwomen crossed the Atlantic to populate his work — Homer also began substituting animals for human beings. The Fox Hunt, Wild Geese in Flight, Leaping Trout: creatures fight for their lives, they flail exhausted, they lie twisted and dead, victims of hunters or nature. In Weatherbeaten, which he painted in 1894, he lifted the drama beyond life and death. He erased any trace of life. Rock, cloud, sea — he painted their passion. Homer’s fascination with the shapes of the ocean, its troughs and swells, its white spume and indigo depths, have a quality of Emersonian rapture. But nature is not beneficent; it is an indifferent process. Homer offers no transcendental epiphany, only the act of witnessing.
These paintings combine delicate, precise drawing, and thin washes with thick, bravado swaths and baroque swirls that refuse to become literal, that describe abstract force. Breaking white plumes into cloud, gray smears from rock to water to fog, indigo dives onto black. It seems as if his hand and eye have found their own process; the painting has become the action. In West Point, Prouts Neck, an arabesque of white bends back on itself and smokes black against the sky. It is a fantastic wave; it is also an imagined dance of energy — a mass of brushstrokes foaming in an alchemical reaction of water and light.
The rocks in Weatherbeaten lie in front of Homer’s studio; the painting is the view he saw through his downstairs window. But the two uninhabited ledges — Bluff Island and Stratton Island — at the center of that view are not visible. Maybe fog obscures them, though they never appear in any of his other paintings, either.
The islands buffer the waves; they interfered with his intention. Homer was not looking for safety. He was already safe in the midst of the frivolous summer fuss and bustle of Prouts Neck and in the comfort of his prospering family and his own commercial and artistic successes. From his covered porch set well back from the sharp rocks, Homer imagined his wilderness.
Painting that wilderness in a room facing away from the ocean, looking inwards toward modern dangers where nothing — not family, not ledge — could offer protection, Homer eliminated the islands and changed America’s view.
Deborah Weisgall’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. She has written two novels and a memoir.