PORTLAND, Maine — John Updike called him the Melville of painting. It’s an apt description of Winslow Homer, who like the fellow chronicler of man and sea, built on European forms to create art that was uniquely American. Not the least of that uniqueness was tied to Homer’s determination to go his own way. He was not an American Impressionist or a plein air landscaper. Homer was as sui generis as Maine’s rocky shore.
Maine is where Homer spent the last years of his life and the place you should be scheduling two trips to witness the remarkable homage that the Portland Museum of Art is paying to the man. Why two? The exhibit of Homer’s work, “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine” closes Dec. 30 (with recently announced expanded hours). As good as the exhibit is, however, the main attraction is really the tour of Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck. Unfortunately, that’s sold out through the fall and won’t reopen until the spring.
Homer came to live and work at the family compound in 1883 and continued painting there till his death in 1919. His late paintings were much less populated than much of his earlier dramatic work and since there are fewer people in them the narrative thrust is harder to find.
That hardly makes them less dramatic, though, or makes him any less a storyteller. The painting, “Weatherbeaten,” is neither photographic nor Impressionistic. And yet it has elements of both. It represents pretty much what we see standing on the shore yet its play of color suggests something primordial and timeless. As Thomas A. Dennenberg says in the cxhibition catalog:
“The painting is an archetype, a new model marine. Born of Homer’s penchant for firsthand, lived experience and close observation, the green ocean and gray sky signal that a storm has passed over while weather at sea pushes a wave to great height as it breaks over rocks close to Homer’s studio.”
Close indeed. Homer painted from the studio, not on the rocks (so to speak) and that’s what makes seeing “Weatherbeaten” and “High Cliff, Coast of Maine” feel as if we’re sharing the spark that produced the art. For those who love his work, or maybe even for those who don’t, it’s the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca or Jerusalem. That’s one of the highlights of the tour of the studio – book your tickets now for the spring. You not only get to see the view of the rocks and ocean from his window, but you can go out on those rocks and almost literally walk a mile in Homer’s shoes. (But bring your own comfortable clogs for the rock walk.)
Homer, of course, didn’t walk in anyone’s shoes except his own. Unlike the American Impressionists sharing wall space with him in Portland who looked to Europe, Homer went his own way. During the political debate about American Exceptionalism, I suggested that the phrase needn’t belong to the right and that Homer was part of an artistic American Exceptionalism, a school that includes Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, Charles Ives, Walt Whitman, Edward Hopper and Stephen Sondheim. These are all artists who eschewed the trends of the day to create work that was uniquely American without being at all jingoistic.
After giving up his opulent New York City digs, Homer took over the family carriage house. The reconstituted Winslow Homer Studio abounds with touches of his legendary hermit-age – the flagpole that he was reputed to use when he wanted the nearby restaurant to send over lunch; the sign he put up to scare tourists away, “Snakes snakes & mice.” That may be an apocryphal portrait of the artist, though, as Homer seems to have been a steadfast member of the Prouts Neck community. As is his great grandnephew Charles Homer Willauer, who sold the studio to the museum and who still sings on Sunday nights at the Prouts Neck Yacht club, not open to the public.
He was a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle and there’s a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, along with some of his penciled remarks on the wall, like “Oh, What a grand friend chance can be when it chooses.” In a way that seems to be the opposite lesson from many of his paintings, such as “Undertow,” featuring a dramatic rescue at sea, where chance is more enemy than friend. Even the less overtly storied paintings in Portland, like “Eight Bells” or landscapes like “Breaking Storm, Coast of Maine” reflect danger as much as beauty. Not that it’s always man pitted against nature. Portland’s “Artists Painting in the White Mountains,” like those of boys in rural fields, suggest a more sympatico relationship with nature. It’s the full experience of joy and danger that make the art suggestive of a life well-lived. By the way, the exhibit itself is quite popular and has timed viewings, so it’s best to reserve the time you’re going.
Here’s a video tour of the studio and exhibit courtesy of “CBS Sunday Morning.”
But perhaps we should give the last word to Homer biographer William Howe Downes, whose quote about “Weatherbeaten” hangs next to the painting in Portland, but could just as easily take pride of place at Prouts Neck: “Reality is made more real; we are more acutely alive when brought into its presence. Our horizons expand. We take deeper breaths.”