Time Alone

foggy day on the coast
jhas | Pixabay
By Susan Hand Shetterly

Sometimes a painting lodges in your mind and the image stays, your days filtering their hours through it. It reaches into your own narrative and lives there for awhile. For me, these last months, that painting has been The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, by Winslow Homer. You can find it on the web or in a book of his oil paintings from his later years, when he set out to paint the sea from his place on Prouts Neck, in Scarborough. Who would ever set out to paint the sea, especially here in Maine? How could anyone get it right? Well, Homer did. You look at his seascapes and can hear the waves shatter against the rocks, then the ebbing hiss. You can smell the salt.

But the canvas that lives with me these days has no breaking waves. It is still, except for a small ruffle of water along a far ledge and a glint of water pooling on the rocks up close. An oil in browns, silvery whites, and a single dense black, it was painted in 1894, after Homer decided to spend most of his time on this stretch of coast and commissioned a stable by the shore to be rebuilt as a studio, a place where he could keep to himself and work. The sun burning into the fog in the painting creates a light that seems crepuscular, but it is really one of those middays when warm air moves across the cold surface of the gulf and hits a dew point, dropping a gauzy curtain along the shore. The viewer sees Homer’s studio, ghost-like, and the family home beyond it.

What I find in the painting these days is an echo of the time we’re going through. The artist’s studio is poised at the land’s edge, bearing witness to a vast and complicated sea. To some extent, we are all doing that: standing apart, looking out at a world that is very beautiful and very dangerous.

Who would ever set out to paint the sea, especially here in Maine? How could anyone get it right?

The painter has put himself at a distance, looking back at his studio covered in this protective fog. I believe he imagines he is inside, although we can’t see him. He’s busy turning paint into waves and ledge and sky because that’s the life he’s given himself. He is alone in one of the most challenging ways to be alone, because he is working at conjuring up a vision as alive and restless as the sea and turning it into paint.

Homer was a private man by temperament, and when he was painting, he was sharp-tongued and formidable in his insistence on being by himself. Legend has it that he hoisted a flag up the studio flagpole when he wanted lunch delivered, then passed the plates out a window when he’d eaten. When he was at work, which was most of the time, he thrived in isolation and in silence, except for the ocean sounds seeping in at the windows.

I think of The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog as I drive past my neighbors’ oddly subdued homes to shop — quickly, masked, and with many squirts of hand sanitizer. Most of us are trying to make of this time, quieter and more solitary than we’re used to, something as creative and hopeful as we can. It’s not easy. There is a difference between being told to stay home to stay safe and doing what Homer did in those years at the shore, when he chose to turn away from the human world to see if he could make something that told the truth and would last. For me, living in another sort of alone time, he did just that.