A Retrospective of Winslow Homer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1996
(Originally published in Boston Magazine. March 1996)
Many American artists painted seascapes; Winslow Homer (1836–1910) painted the sea. Much of his life was spent near the water, fishing and painting on Prout’s Neck, — a rocky promontory on the Maine coast, about ten miles South of Portland — reeling in the deep, unfathomable mystery of the sea. The coast of Maine was for Homer what the gardens at Giverny were for his French contemporary Claude Monet: an endless source of inspiration.
“Like Thoreau, Winslow Homer is a recluse,” wrote a Boston art critic in 1896, “for the reason that art of the sort he lives for is incompatible with the amenities of society. He lives in a lonesome spot on the coast of Maine…No artificial refinements, no etiquette of the drawing-room, no afternoon tea chatter, no club gossip, for this hermit of the brush.”
He liked stormy weather, not placid seas. A Prout’s Neck neighbor recalled,
“When I knew him he was comparatively indifferent to the ordinary and peaceful aspects of the ocean…But when the lowering clouds gathered above the horizon, and tumultuous waves ran along the rock-bound coast and up the shelving, precipitous rocks, his interest became intense.”
Another friend remembered, “It is a very familiar sight to see Winslow out on the rocks painting, especially after a big storm.” As Emily Dickinson wrote — another solitary New England artist —
“Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight –In Thee!”
Homer’s paintings of the Maine coast made him famous. (Many consider him the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century; I put him in the Top Five, along with Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and Whistler.) But he began and ended as a Bostonian. He was born here in 1836, and grew up in Cambridge and Belmont. His paintings were exhibited in Boston and bought by Bostonians; even after he moved up to Maine, he came down to Boston to buy clothes and paint and wine; and when he died in 1910, he was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
He was largely self-educated; from the very beginning he was “determined to be an artist.” His mother painted in watercolors and both parents encouraged his “leaning towards art.” In 1855, he was apprenticed to a lithography studio for two years; it felt like “slavery,” but it taught him how to make a picture, and by 1857, he was working as a freelance illustrator for a variety of publications, including Harper’s Weekly. When the Civil War broke out, Harper’s sent him to the front as a “special artist to go with the skirmishes in the next battle.” For several years, he covered the war, much as a photojournalist might do today, in a series of wood engravings of battle scenes and images of soldiers and prisoners, pensive and yearning for home. After the war, he took a studio in New York City and transformed his war sketches into a series of oil paintings, which established his reputation as a major American artist.
He spent a few years finding himself, painting sunny meadows, boys in a field, girls in a garden, little red schoolhouses, and strong, active women riding their horses to the top of Mount Washington, teaching school, walking on the rocks, gazing out to sea. During those years, he developed what one contemporary critic called “the power of looking at objects as if they had never been painted before.” In 1881, perhaps after some disappointment in love, he took a trip to England, and painted in Cullercoats, a small fishing village on the North Sea. Homer was notoriously reticent about his life and art (“If a man wants to be an artist, he must never look at pictures,” he said), but while in London, he must have seen the Elgin Marbles — the Greek sculptures that were once on the Parthenon Frieze, showing great, massive Goddesses carved in marble. They seem to echo in Homer’s paintings of the fisherwomen of Cullercoats, draped in scarves, carrying baskets of fish or their babies slung on their backs, tromping in wooden clogs through the wet sand.
At Cullercoats, Homer went through some kind of sea-change; when he returned to America, both his life and his art were transformed. “Homer is two different painters,” says Theodore E. Stebbins, John Moors Cabot Curator of American Paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In the first half of his career, “he’s a great genre painter, recording the lost dreams of the American rural countryside,” with a studio on 10th Street in New York and a sociable life. After Cullercoats,
“He becomes a better painter, both technically and morally — he’s seeking a more authentic experience and his metaphor becomes the sea. He’s a realist, but a realistic romantic, full of symbolism and passion, filtered through the facade of Yankee reticence. His last paintings are magical and passionate, really profound meditations on the meaning of life and death and the sea.”
In 1883, the Homer family bought most of Prout’s Neck, and built houses there, drawn by the untamed beauty of the landscape, the clear, clean air, and the wild, elemental nature of the sea. Winslow built himself a studio, and settled there for life.. “This secluded country home on the coast of Maine is a locality excellently adapted to the practice of his art,” observed a reporter for the Boston Advertiser.
Snugly settled in at Prout’s Neck, Homer painted his way to greatness. His pictures often show somebody gazing out to sea, concentrating on something no one else can see. Maybe it’s the light on the water, or the wind in the sails, or a boat coming home to shore, or just the flicker of a dream; and they are lost in a moment of stillness and clarity and exhilarating aloneness. But in the late paintings of the Maine coast, other people all but disappear, and the image is almost abstract — just water crashing up against the rocky shore in thick swirls of paint — just the old man and the sea.
Homer spent the worst of the Maine winters in Florida, the Bahamas, or Bermuda, fishing and painting watercolors, which he called “goods“. (“As I shall go up for the spring fishing I will take my sketch block so & will give you a full line of goods for the next season,” he wrote to his dealer Knoedler). His watercolors are swift, spontaneous flashes of inspiration–like the split-second flash of silvery light on the back of a trout leaping up in the river. They sold very well to Boston collectors and provided him a steady source of income. (Some writers attribute their popularity to Yankee thrift; his oil paintings were much more expensive — at least $2500, a considerable sum in those days–and often found a market in New York and Philadelphia).
“He liked to fish, and fishing means spending a lot of time on the water. Like many pent-up New England men, he found his release in the sight of the ocean,” says Sue Reed, an expert on Homer watercolors at the MFA. “Certainly he’s interested in the abstract. It’s naturalism, but with a very controlled formal composition. He manipulates the areas of light and shapes and shade to make it come out right.” Or as a contemporary critic put it, “There is something ‘more than meets the eye,’ but the eye is none the less satisfied.”
Cranky, plain-spoken, reclusive, the “hermit of the brush” did not reveal himself much through letters or conversation or self-portraits. “Strong, clear-eyed, and simple of speech,” wrote a friend. At Prout’s Neck, he lived alone, with a flower garden, provisions sent from the best Boston markets, and a view of the sea. He seems to have been happy there. In a rare letter, he wrote,
“The life that I have chosen give me full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life. The Sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks.”
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com