PROUTS NECK — It’s the quirky stuff that keeps Winslow Homer’s studio real. A window where the artist etched “Winslow” in the glass. A list of people to whom he owed money scribbled on the back of a door. A rustic sign warning “Snakes Snakes Mice,” his effort to keep admirers away.
Homer (1836-1910) lived and worked in his Prouts Neck studio for the last 27 years of his life. It’s a short walk from his front door to Cannon Rock and the sea that inspired works such as “Weatherbeaten” (1894), his masterful painting of driving rain and waves breaking against boulders on the shore.
In 2006, the Portland Museum of Art purchased the studio from the artist’s great-grand-nephew, Charles Homer Willauer. Over the past six years, meticulous restoration, just completed, has revived the freestanding, shingle-style studio originally designed by Portland architect John Calvin Stevens. Along the way, artifacts and anecdotes emerged. One story recalls that this scenic section of Scarborough once could boast of eight hotels. One of them delivered lunch whenever Homer hoisted a flag from the second-floor porch he called the piazza. So much for his reputation as a loner.
Only one hotel, the Black Point Inn, remains in the exclusive enclave of elegant cottages that are handed down from generation to generation. Located 12 miles from Portland, the community has long been off-limits to the public.
Beginning Sept. 24 and by reservation only, the museum will offer guided tours of the studio. By agreement with neighbors, tours are small (10 visitors maximum) and scheduled only in fall and spring. Self-guided visits are not allowed.
The 2½-hour tours will begin and end at the museum and travel by van to the studio where interpretive talks, interactive exhibits, and walks to the shore (weather permitting) will provide glimpses into Homer’s life and impact on the world of art. Earlier this summer I had a chance to visit the studio.
Homer was already a major artist when he moved here in 1883 to join his brother, Charles, and his family. Charles had purchased most of the 2.34-acre neck as a summer home for the extended Homer clan with plans to develop a portion as a summer resort. Museum director Mark Bessire calls Winslow Homer’s arrival an “anchor moment” in the history of American art. The Industrial Revolution had dramatically changed urban life, causing many to yearn for a bygone time when life more closely reflected the back-to-nature ideas expressed by 19th-century Transcendentalists, Bessire said.
For many, Maine defined wilderness. Other artists, including Frederick Church, had come before Homer to paint the region’s unspoiled rural landscapes and dramatic ocean views. They launched a Maine arts tradition that continues today and flourishes in Portland. But Homer’s arrival had a powerful effect.
“This place, this Maine, was Homer’s vernacular and everything in American painting changed,” said Bessire. “American art was being defined and much of that identity was captured by him. Painters came to see what he saw. His vision still influences how countless artists approach nature.”
In the studio, penciled on one wall in Homer’s hand is “Oh what a friend chance can be when it chooses.” On another he scribbled a woman’s name; her story is unknown. Mementos recall the outdoor sporting life he loved — photographs of him and his brother fishing on the rocks, and two strange fish trophies he made by mounting flattened Atlantic salmon on plaques that hang near ceramic plates painted with florals in watercolor by his mother, Henrietta Homer. There’s a wicker daybed on which it is said he took his last breath.
“All of these walls had to be stripped right to the bones, every piece of wood removed to bring the building up to code,” said Geoff Goba, site superintendent for Truant Construction. “Everything had to be replaced exactly where it came from. Homer’s writings had to be protected. Bits of Harper’s Weekly that were tacked on walls upstairs went back up. It all had to be exact.”
Dana Baldwin, the museum’s director of learning and interpretation, joined me on the piazza. Silently we soaked up the lawn’s sweep to the water’s edge, hearing only birdsong. Later she said, “We toyed with what we should do to enhance the experience out on the piazza. Then we realized just being here is enough.”
Rather than fully furnished rooms, there are intimate spaces that Homer loved and set pieces that provide talking points for docents. Visitors can flip archival copies of Harper’s Weekly newspapers to see illustrations by Homer early in his career when, during the Civil War, he sketched troops on the battlefield. Flexible exhibits created by Amaze Design of Boston will change as new scholarship about Homer emerges.