Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Americana: Seeing Winslow Homer's inspiration -- June 13, 2019 column

Winslow Homer Studio -- Portland Museum of Art


Long before people over-shared their lives online, practically begging for fame, one of America’s greatest artists walked alone on the rocky Atlantic coast.

Winslow Homer lived from 1836 to 1910 and spent most of the last quarter-century of his life in a rustic studio on Prouts Neck, a point that juts into the ocean in southern Maine.

There, with the tempestuous ocean as his muse, he created some of his most dramatic seascapes.

We can see his paintings in museums around the world, but, thanks to the Portland Museum of Art, we can see his inspiration at Prouts Neck.

The museum bought Homer’s studio in 2006 and did a major renovation, restoring it in 2012 to the way it looked when Homer lived there in the 1890s.

On a private road with spacious old vacation homes, the Homer Studio is open to the public only through small-group tours from the museum, about 12 miles away. I’d wanted to see the studio for years and last week finally did.  

The spectacular vistas alone are worth the trip, but the studio also shows how genius can thrive with solitude, a little space and few amenities.

Homer’s studio was a former stable of about 1,500 square feet he had moved closer to the water and remodeled. It has two simple, pine-paneled rooms downstairs, one with a large fireplace for cooking, and a loft above with a long porch balcony overlooking the sea. The little house had neither electricity nor central heat.

The story has it Homer would stay until his water bucket froze solid, then reluctantly move to warmer climes until spring.

A guide displays laminated prints of “Weatherbeaten,” “Cannon Rock” and several other Homer seacoast paintings and shows photos of the locations before leading visitors on the Cliff Walk to see the views that inspired the magnificent art. This being the 21st century, visitors must sign a form releasing the museum from responsibility in case of a mishap.

You walk the narrow, rocky path, avoiding the poison ivy, and watch waves crash white against the rocks and clouds hang in a crystal blue sky – just as Homer did, with his dog Sam. The light and air are invigorating.

“The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks,” he once wrote about this place. How many of us can say that about where we live and work?

Homer never married, stayed close to his family – and desperately sought privacy. Villagers in the fishing community left him alone, but people who “summered” in the small hotels then in the area wanted to meet the famous artist.

He cultivated a reputation as “the hermit of Prouts Neck,” building a tall wood fence around his property and putting up signs that read, “Mr. Homer is not at home” and “SNAKES SNAKES MICE!”

He refused interviews and instructed his two brothers to knock in certain ways, so he knew who was at the door.

And that brings us to his family – whose support was noteworthy.

His mother was an accomplished watercolorist, and young Winslow liked to draw, so his parents bought him art supplies and books of sketches from Europe, biographers tell us.

When Winslow wouldn’t consider college, his father arranged an apprenticeship with a lithographer, where Winslow learned to copy and draw. His independent spirit rebelled, though, and when his apprenticeship ended, he vowed at 21 never to work for anyone again.

He became a freelance illustrator and Civil War artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly and didn’t start painting seriously until he was about 27.

Two of his first oil paintings were based on his Civil War experience. He placed them in an exhibition and wrote his older brother Charles: If they don’t sell, I’ll give up painting and take a steady job.

The paintings did sell, Homer kept painting and became successful.

Only several years later, when he visited Charles’s home and saw one of the pictures, did Winslow realize his brother had secretly bought them. Furious, Winslow wouldn’t speak to Charles for weeks.

One hates to think what would have become of Winslow had Charles not bought those paintings.

We can be grateful and walk where Homer did at Prouts Neck, where he found his inspiration and we might find our own.    

© 2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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