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Finding Winslow Homer: Prouts Neck, Maine

Finding Winslow Homer: Prouts Neck, Maine
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SLIDE SHOW: Winslow Homer works

I stand alone on a boulder-strewn shoreline, a rugged symbol of Maine. The waves thrash against the rocks.

They shoot a salty mist onto my face and clothing. The sound is almost deafening. It’s no surprise that they call this part of Prouts Neck “Cannon Rock.” Or maybe it’s named for that one cylindrical stone I find that resembles a cannon, bathed by the continuous ebb and flow of the ocean.

This spit of land seems dwarfed by the sea; I can’t help but think that I’m lost in some Winslow Homer canvas, man facing unforgiving nature–even more so when the wind picks up and I chase after my notes. As I snag my papers, I look down at a copy of a painting and realize I am in a Winslow Homer painting: Cannon Rock (1895), which now hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are few American artists in whose footsteps you can walk and still see the same unblemished scenery to which the painter devoted himself. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to call Homer the American Monet, and the rocks of Prouts Neck our lily pads. Less than a half-hour drive south of Portland, this little peninsula was the lens through which Homer observed powerful gales, dense fog, and nor’easters. When the moment happened, he’d record in unsentimental fashion the small dinghy stuck on a wave, engulfed by the sea, or the layer of white froth slamming against Cannon Rock.

“Like Edward Hopper and so many other iconic American artists, Homer began as an illustrator,” notes Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the new American Wing, débuting this November, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “He could reduce a scene to something that spoke to people on many levels, but primarily invited viewers into this engaging narrative.”

Winslow Homer had always loved the sea, yet this fascination with its fury was a surprising turnaround from his earlier work. He was born in Boston on February 24, 1836, close to a working harbor where tall ships lined the docks. At the age of 21, Homer launched into his career as a freelance commercial illustrator, preparing prints for the finest periodicals of the day. By the 1860s, he’d become one of Harper’s Weekly‘s elite artists, sent to capture Civil War soldiers as they headed into battle.

During the following decade, Homer focused his art on America’s newfound love of outdoor recreation. A favorite retreat was Gloucester, Massachusetts, which he visited in 1873 and 1880, choosing to portray the tourists who played on its beaches instead of the locals who made this village the oldest fishing port in America. Homer’s view of the ocean was merely a place where pretty young people could stroll, wade, or sail.

His viewpoint changed with a visit to Tynemouth, England, in 1881. On the North Sea, Tynemouth, like Gloucester, was home to both a summer community and year-round fishermen. Homer could have continued portraying carefree resort society, but scenes of couples lounging at water’s edge no longer interested him. He turned his attention to the tossing swells of the North Atlantic, the mysterious mist that rolls ashore, the effects of light on water, and, most important, the impact of those elements upon the lives of the people who worked there. He would bring this vision to his next stop, Prouts Neck, where he would produce his finest works and garner a reputation as one of the foremost artists of his day.

“If Homer had died at 50, he would be remembered as an artist of great promise and as the author of a few pictures in which promise had become performance,” wrote painter and art historian Kenyon Cox. “It is because he lived to 74 that his career became the great and rounded whole we know.”

There’s no better way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the artist’s death than to take a drive out to Prouts Neck, smell the salt, feel the wind blowing against you. Nature’s pull is enhanced if you visit during the shoulder-season months of May and October, Homer’s favorite time of year there. In summer, the weather was far too gentle for Homer to take notice and often he was off painting in the Adirondacks or in Quebec. It wasn’t until there was a chill in the air and most of the summer residents had gone that Winslow Homer readied his paintbrushes.

I walk a short distance to #5 Wins-low Homer Road, where a simple two-story structure seems out of place amid the elaborate summer estates. This small studio would be the renowned artist’s primary residence from 1883 until his death in 1910. Homer lived in monastic conditions, with limited furniture and comfort. According to Homer biographer Philip C. Beam, the artist regularly missed meals, dedicated solely to the one thing he wanted to do: paint. So imagine how he felt when he achieved fame and admirers tracked him down to see his latest canvas. As a joke, he created a sign that read “SNAKES! SNAKES! MICE!” to dissuade people from disturbing him while he sketched on the rocks. The studio is now under the jurisdiction of the Portland Museum of Art, which acquired it from Homer’s great-grand-nephew, Chip Willauer. (The studio is under renovation and will reopen in September 2012.)

In the meantime, walk past the juniper trees Homer planted in his backyard to the mile-long Cliff Walk. Thanks to Winslow’s brother Charles, who donated this marginal way to the public in 1879, you can stroll the same route Homer traveled almost every day with his white-haired terrier, Sam. See the boulders, cliffs, and vegetation that Homer immortalized on his canvases.

In front of me, several feet from the cliffs, stand the rocks Homer painted in A Summer Squall (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1904). Waves wash over the large stone in the center, yards from the spot where Homer often fished for tautog. I head to my right past “The Ark,” Charles Homer’s exclusive home. He was a successful chemist and businessman in New York and bought almost the entirety of the Neck for his family. Behind #3 Checkley Point, I find the sloping ledge where Homer painted Sunset, Saco Bay (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1896). Carrying a lobster trap after a day of fishing, the two women in this work, one of Homer’s tamer depictions of the Atlantic, walk up the gentle rocks.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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Updated Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

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