Published: September 25, 2012
Celebrating the opening of the newly restored Winslow Homer Studio, which it maintains, the Portland Museum of Art is showcasing more than 30 major oils and watercolors painted during the artist’s tenure in the studio, 1883‱910. Drawn from Portland’s own rich holdings and museums around the country, “Weatherbeaten: The Late Paintings of Winslow Homer,” on view through December 30, introduces new perspectives on the life and work of this celebrated artist.
The exhibition is organized by Thomas A. Denenberg, Portland’s former chief curator and now director of Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, who writes in the excellent catalog that the works displayed, “part and parcel of their age, read as a visual fulcrum between Victorian sentiment and Modernist visual culture.”
“Weatherbeaten” traces Homer’s artistic path at Prouts Neck, the rocky promontory on Saco Bay south of Portland, from narrative work to dramatic encounters between sea and rocks, locating viewers, as Denenberg puts it, “in that place where the Atlantic Ocean laps, murmurs and roars with the seasons&⁛painting] life lessons for the modern era, a visual poem about time and constancy.”
By the time he settled in Prouts Neck, Homer, age 47, was a painter with a national reputation. Born and raised around Boston, he was a lithographer’s apprentice, illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, chronicler of the Civil War, narrator of American leisure life and recorder of British fisherfolk battling the North Sea.
The latter experience †witnessing the perilous life of brave men and women who confronted daily dangers to make a living at sea †profoundly influenced Homer’s outlook on life and his art. Having sharpened his eye and mastered his craft, he now sought his own way of seeing and painting. He was ready to probe beneath the surface of things, to look deeply into the heart of human feeling and into the clashing forces of the natural world. As preeminent scholar of Homer at Prouts Neck, Philip C. Beam, observed, “The transition to maturity was accomplished, the work of greatness about to begin.”
In 1883, Homer closed his New York studio, moved to Prouts Neck where his family was developing a summer resort, converted a mansard-roofed carriage house into a studio and turned to serious subjects in his art.
His modest, green-painted studio, recently returned to its look during his lifetime as a result of a $10.5 million restoration project by the Portland Museum, is ideally sited near the sea. Its extensive second-floor balcony offered Homer a secluded “viewing station where&⁴he artist would sit or pace for hours undisturbed, staring at the rocks, waves and atmospheric effects of sunlight on seawater,” according to art historian James F. O’Gorman. An observation deck on the roof, reached by ladder from the piazza, presumably provided the artist with clear views of the relentless surf-rocks contest below.
A simple painting room, added to the back of the house around 1890, contains several smallish windows, but none to the north, as is usual for artists’ workspaces, because this would have exposed Homer to the gaze of passersby on the nearby road. Today, it contains an easel, a rack of copies of Harper’s Weekly to which he contributed illustrations and a few props. Although Homer painted frequently en plein air, some of the most important paintings in American history were created or touched up there.
Toward the ocean from the painting room, the living room with a large fireplace, fire bucket, floral still life watercolors by his talented mother on one wall, along with artifacts used in paintings and a chair and a settee re-create the simplified space Homer knew.
Short, erect, lean, mustachioed and bald, Homer was a taciturn man of simple tastes who could dress immaculately but lived a spartan life. Above all, he treasured his privacy and was dedicated to his art. A hand lettered sign, placed outside, warning of “SNAKES SNAKES! MICE!,” helped keep uninvited visitors away while he worked. (It is now displayed in the studio living room.) Contrary to conventional wisdom, Homer was no misanthrope; he established warm friendships with people in the art world and with year-round neighbors in Prouts Neck.
As Portland Museum director Mark H.X. Bessire observes, “The site at Prouts Neck provided both the atmosphere and landscape that transformed Homer’s late work. In these paintings, watercolors and prints&⁴he powerful forces of nature and man’s ability to endure came to the fore.” The Portland show focuses on Homer’s culminating seascapes, which represent his best work in watercolor and oils.
Homer’s early work at Prouts Neck, often watercolors, depicted fishermen at work, boats scudding over choppy seas and local girls posing on rocks as had fisherwomen in England. He achieved considerable success in capturing the drama of insistent, massive waves pounding rocky shores in watercolors like “The Northeaster,” but concluded that watercolor could not do justice to the subject. Thereafter, he turned to oils to record confrontations of sea and rocks.
Two important oils of the decade, the vigorous monochromatic “Taking and Observation” and the quiet but powerful “Eight Bells,” featured hardy sailors facing rolling seas while taking readings on an octant, the model for which is displayed in the studio. These masterworks document that “At the end of the 80s,&⁛Homer] was seeing and painting with an ease and effectiveness that comes only from a clear purpose and sure mastery of technique,” in Beam’s words.
In the early 1890s, Homer signaled his contentment with his perch in Prouts Neck with an evocative oil, “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog.” Emerging from the mist are the family home, the Ark, to the left and his studio to the right with its signature jutting piazza. The slanting rocks and foaming water underscore the site’s proximity to his favorite subject matter. As Homer wrote around this time, “The life that I have chosen gives me my full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life. The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks.”
Around this time, Homer patiently honed his mastery of the natural forces around him. As art historian Marc Simpson puts it, “Homer waited years to absorb the place and make it his, to know it far more intensely and thoroughly than most other painters of the sea in the Nineteenth Century knew their coastal sites,” such as Gustave Courbet or Claude Monet. As it was, Homer painted relatively few seascapes †17 †in the concluding three decades of his career. That spotty output suggests, says Simpson, that he needed to let the “subject come to fruition in his mind and heart” before completing important marine paintings.
During the 1890s, Homer created the most important works of his career. On the rocks below his studio he posed sturdy local women silhouetted against brilliantly illuminated Saco Bay; while emerging from coastal mists in “The Fisher Girl,” a stalwart fisherwoman, fishing nets slung over her shoulder, peers anxiously out to a stormy sea.
Views of snow-capped rocks facing foaming seas conveyed the grip of winter in Prouts Neck. In Homer’s celebrated “Fox Hunt,” moonlit waves crash against the nearby shoreline as a beleaguered fox labors through deep snowdrifts while menacing crows circle overhead. It was a natural drama that intrigued the 57-year-old outdoorsman painter.
Homer continued creating paintings in which people watch things unseen to viewers: a wreck or smashing waves or gusts of strong winds. In “The West Wind,” the solitary figure on a bluff stands buffeted by an autumnal gale, while great waves break 60 feet high, nearly level with the cliffs.
Before painting this splendid work, Homer had dined with fellow artist John LaFarge, who criticized Homer for using too much brown in his paintings. Homer wagered LaFarge $100 that he could create a painting in browns that critics and the public would admire. After the dealer who exhibited “The West Wind” †a symphony in browns †reported to Homer the clear popularity of the canvas, Homer wrote to LaFarge: “The West Wind is brown. It’s damned good. Send me your check for $100.” It is surely one of Homer’s finest images.
In “Watching the Breakers †A High Sea,” a clump of bundled-up people are framed by an expanse of white spume from a crashing wave, much as Homer observed such sights in stormy weather. These images drive home the awesome power †and beauty †of nature at its most animated.
Homer’s unsurpassed knowledge of surf, rocks and how to observe and record their clashes was the result of long hours of observation and thought. Neighbors recalled walks with him along the marginal way, during which he would point to a distant wave and then show how to follow its course until it broke on Prouts cliffs. “That was the scientific observer in Homer,” says Beam, “studying the inspiring and dynamic order in nature.” Other times, “he would be like a poet and watch in silence for long moments.” Similar sightings from his studio balcony and observation deck underscore the importance of that restored and reopened landmark to an understanding of Homer’s oeuvre.
Typical of the artist’s final works at Prouts Neck are paintings that focus on the relentless confrontation between ocean and rocks, suggesting the enduring fascination of clashes in the natural world in which man plays little or no role. In his classic “High Cliff, Coast of Maine,” Homer emphasized the sloping mass of Prouts’ ledges, pounded by breakers, with tiny human figures atop the rock that underscore man’s insignificance in the face of powerful forces of nature.
Particularly compelling is Homer’s iconic “Weatherbeaten,” which supplies the title of the exhibition and showcases the painter’s culminating view of the world around him. Sited in Prouts’ Kettle Cove, this crisp, animated seascape zeroes in on high-flying spume from white breakers thundering into the dark diagonals of the rocky shoreline.
In his informative catalog essay, Denenberg examines the manner in which the artist pared down the scene to its essentials, eliminated two nearby islands, creating a “boundless Atlantic Ocean.” After Homer “tightly described the wave and limned the rocks in reddish brown tones to convey a nation of mineral content and organic glaze, Homer applied an elongated rectangle of gray pigment rising out of the foam and paralleling the prominent formation on the left.” It is, Denenberg says, a “masterstroke of creative independence and artistic confidence.”
There have been many Homer exhibitions and books in recent years, but few, if any, have been as informative about his culminating masterpieces as this show and catalog. Denenberg points out, for example, that Homer “participated in the transition from&⁛Victorian] society that placed great currency in morality and order to one that came to acknowledge disorder and abstraction as the conditions of modernity.”
While bemoaning the lack of attention in critical studies to individual paintings among Homer’s late, much-admired pure marines, Marc Simpson advises both extended study of the details of these canvases †and to step back and contemplate them at a distance.
The exhibition is a reminder of the importance of place to Homer, specifically the strategic location of his studio, commanding superb views of the ocean, and the significance of its restoration to the way the artist knew it. Its ambience is extraordinarily helpful in understanding how Winslow Homer became America’s greatest artist.
The 170-page catalog edited by Denenberg is beautifully illustrated and contains enlightening essays by Denenberg, Kenyon Bolton, Erica Hirshler, O’Gorman and Simpson. It sells for $37.50 hardcover and $24.95 softcover.
A valuable companion exhibition, “Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line,” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through December 16.
The Portland Museum is at Seven Congress Square. For information, 207-775-6148 or www.portlandmuseum.org .
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