Like many, even most, canonical Maine artists — Lois Dodd, Ashley Bryan, Louise Nevelson, Andrew Wyeth, to name a few — Winslow Homer wasn’t from here. Born in Boston, he moved to New York in his early 20s and cut his teeth drawing Civil War battle scenes from the front lines for Harper’s Weekly. In his early 30s, he spent a year in Paris, and a decade later, he decamped for a two-year stay in the English countryside. Homer was 47 years old by the time he moved to Maine, setting up shop on seaside acreage he and his parents and siblings had purchased on Prouts Neck, in Scarborough. Today, the Portland Museum of Art owns the property and hosts tours, although visitors would have to exercise a good deal of imagination to picture Prouts as it was in Homer’s time, before it had become a stately enclave of grand homes. Independent arts scholar William R. Cross recounts in his new biography, Winslow Homer: American Passage, that land was cheap and residents dug cesspools for sewage, which they then piped straight into the ocean, near a swimming beach. But, in the following excerpt, Cross details how that rustic spit of land provided Homer with exactly what he needed: a rocky redoubt suitable to his unsociable disposition (or, at least, his public persona) and inspiration for some of his most enduring work, of flinty, frothing seas and the people who plied them.
Over the 23 years between his move to New York in 1859 and his family’s commitment to Prouts Neck, the world had changed in many ways. He was ready for a shift in his life, which was now practical and prudent. The process of industrialization — which began in British textile mills and then transformed the Western world, especially his native Massachusetts — had accelerated. This revolution spurred changes of all kinds: breakthroughs in engineering to allow mass production and distribution of products large and small; reform movements dedicated to temperance (his father’s favorite cause) and other ideals; and rising inequality of wealth and income.
New York was a different place than it had been a quarter-century earlier. It had nearly two million in population (including Brooklyn, which it would annex 15 years later, in 1898). It was also more diverse and sophisticated. Homer and all New Yorkers were benefiting from more frequent travel but that did not stop some from complaining about immigrants crowding New York’s narrow streets. Technology had developed rapidly in ways that made it more practical to live elsewhere. Bell’s 1876 invention of the telephone and, by that same year, the New York Central’s speedy and frequent trains between Boston and Albany were just two examples. Winslow could get to Boston easily, for a day trip or a single overnight stay from Prouts.
Many of Homer’s friends, married or not, had moved on to the next stages of their lives. Homer, 46 in 1882, had not. But he, too, had changed — still a bachelor, but an aging one who had likely given up hope of marrying. He was always intensely private and prized his independence — despite the inevitable price he paid for it in periodic loneliness. With dealers beginning to represent him well, he no longer needed to live principally in New York. More than ever, he would now set the terms of his encounters. As Emily Dickinson had written twenty years earlier:
The Soul selects her own Society— Then—shuts the Door— To her divine Majority— Present no more—
In an odd way, Homer had discovered an advantage — both to his commerce and to his convenience — in cultivating a reputation as a recluse. He is “posé in the extreme, and affects eccentricities of manner that border on gross rudeness,” one critic wrote weeks before his 1880 summer in Gloucester. “To visit him in his studio,” another wrote, “is literally bearding a lion in his den; for Mr. Homer’s strength as an artist is only equaled by his roughness when he does not happen to be just in the humor of being approached.” He chose a head of Medusa (the terrifying snake-haired Gorgon) as the door knocker of his Prouts Neck home. The message was as direct as it was humorous: those who dared to stare into his eyes — and life — risked being turned into stone. He painted a sign promising neighborhood children snakes! snakes! mice! In so doing he was not only fending off unwanted interruptions but also fostering a memorable — if misleading— notoriety. Pictures that a misanthrope made were intrinsically intriguing — to collectors and critics alike, especially when their subject was the maker’s hermitage. The distinction between Homer’s reserve, which was real, and his misanthropy, which was false, quickly vanished.
Prouts offered surprising flexibility. He could live there for a substantial part of the year, with focused time for painting, and leave whenever he wanted to meet with dealers and friends in New York. He could go easily by train to his native Boston, where he and his father became regular visitors at the American House hotel. While in residence at The Ark, Winslow could also address on-site matters relating to the three brothers’ houses; Maine’s oceanfront weather necessitates frequent attention from contractors. And when Prouts got too crowded or his father got too difficult — which happened almost every summer, in his opinion — he could go away for a few weeks, to a destination of his own choosing.
A small notice appeared in the New York Herald on February 25, 1883: “Winslow Homer will settle on the Maine coast, near Portland. He will leave this summer for that locality, and only abandon his studio on the barren coast when he has something to show or for an occasional visit.” His earliest depictions of the Neck suggest that as on the North Sea, he found drama and meaning in the rhythms of day and night, of the seasons, and of the tides—and in the less predictable patterns of storm and sun. A few months into his new life on the edge of the promontory, where naked rock kissed ever-changing sea and sky, Homer wrote contentedly of his new home: “I am delighted with this place.”