Winslow Homer

Stormy Weather
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

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