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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.

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