SCARBOROUGH, Maine — One afternoon in 1883, the artist J. Alden Weir dropped in on his friend Winslow Homer to find him shuffling through a stack of watercolors and drawings splayed on the studio floor. This was on West 10th Street, in New York, in the space Homer kept for almost 25 years despite his meanderings. Homer told Weir that a collector had offered him $500 for 100 small works of his choosing; once the money was in hand, Homer said, “I’m going to leave New York for good.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Where he landed — Prouts Neck, a bulge of rock and cliff dangling from the mainland into the North Atlantic — may as well have been an alien planet to his urban peers. Homer abruptly abandoned a comfortable life at the center of the American art world where, as a painter of bucolic American idyll, he’d done brisk business. His scenes of seaside bliss on sandy Atlantic shores near Gloucester, or woodsy hunters and frilly-dressed shepherdesses sprinkled through the mountains and woods of the increasingly tamed Northeast, had developed a following that made him very much a star.
But something about that life no longer stuck for Homer, and you have to wonder if it ever did. He had forged a career of a particular, plainspoken virtuosity that took him from a comfortable Cambridge upbringing to the edge of national carnage. In his 20s, he embedded with regiments of the Union Army during the Civil War; his crisp renderings of the front lines were a staple of Harper’s Weekly coverage, offering its many millions of readers an unembellished view.
Coming home after the war, Homer, still a young man, labored to shed his reputation as a news illustrator for the more noble mantle of artist, painting heavy scenes like “The Brush Harrow,” in 1865, of two boys and their weary horse picking over a battlefield barely scabbed over from years of war. Not yet 30, Homer’s mind was burdened by what he’d seen, however sure his hand. The painting is bleak and lifeless, but not in the way you’d hope.
Soon after, Homer journeyed to France, where the vibrant color and freedom of Impressionism was blossoming. He brought some of that sense back home with him, to the rustic scenes that made his name. He could have stopped there, a crowd-pleasing pastoralist riding the last wave of romantic realism (soon to be swallowed by Modernism’s rising tide). It would have been so easy. It’s exactly what he didn’t do.
Homer had just been to England when he decided to leave New York, spending time in the fishing town of Tynemouth on the North Sea, where his attention, strangely, turned from seaside bathers and beach resorts toward moody studies of light and sky, sea and cloud. Something in him shook loose. There would be no going back to New York, but to pack up and leave.
Prouts Neck had an obvious connection; it was the place where Homer’s Boston-based family chose to settle, and where his mother, whom he adored, would spend her last years. (She died just a year after his arrival.) Always awkward, Homer relished the simplicity of life with his father, two brothers and their families, away from the constant social demands of the hectic New York scene.
But in that simple life, Homer found something far more complex: An inner richness much of his previous work lacked. His gifts were always profoundly obvious, his skills for dead-eye realism natural and abundant (he was largely self-taught). But as Philip C. Beam observes in his book “Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck,” Homer’s arcadian scenes of American idyll were “technically sparkling, pleasant in content, but not especially deep.” Henry James, the novelist, offered a more blunt appraisal, calling Homer “almost barbarously simple” with “no imagination.”
Depth was something Homer both avoided and sought all his life, wondering, perhaps, if it was beyond his grasp. He’d always been committed to a simple task — painting what he saw, as he saw it. That left to Homer, a searcher with a knack for flash-freezing the world in front of his nose, the mission of truly seeing.
On the spit of road that connects Prouts Neck to the mainland, grassy marshland riven by slim channels of seawater rests on the landward side; seaward, it’s fences and gates and PRIVATE PROPERTY signs, discouraging rubbernecking tourists from pursuing a glimpse of the ocean beyond. Just past the Black Point Inn, the road curls to the left, to a steel gate with a keypad. Just beyond it is Homer’s squat studio cottage with a mansard roof, now surrounded by toney summer homes in a gated community.
In better times, you could make an appointment, book a tour, and survey the endless horizon from his second-story veranda — just as he did on hot summer afternoons and in the depth of winter storms, on days with fog thick as stone walls or skies of spotless blue. Even the cliff walk, a narrow public footpath that rings the neck beneath the seaside mansions that sprung up since Homer’s day, is roped off, waiting for something like normalcy to return.
Little enough time has passed since Homer walked these shores — he died in his painting studio in 1910 — that you really can follow his path to the craggy coastline, to the churn of foam that climbs the rocks here with a dizzying rhythm. By luck of my being deemed “essential,” Clara Cohan, the studio’s keeper and an artist herself — the property is in the care of the Portland Museum of Art, which acquired it from one of Homer’s descendants in 2006 — brought me through the gates and treated me to the strange, sad luxury of a private tour (in season, buses constantly ferry Homer fans in and out). It was a blazingly clear day, with nothing of Homer’s turbulent, heaving seas. But it did evoke his solitude, perched out here on the edge of the world, with a slope of lawn, a tangle of brush, and a stony heap yielding to the great blue sea.
This is no longer the refuge that Homer sought. Maine is now all-too-reachable by interstate, or the private aircraft that shuttle well-to-do cottagers from their metropolitan home bases. (To be fair, it wasn’t exactly remote in Homer’s time either, the railways bringing a summertime crush of vacationers that led the artist to concoct a self-image of hermetic recluse, posting signs warning of snakes, or declaring “Mr. Homer is NOT at home,” even though he almost always was.)
Standing on the cottage’s front lawn, though, with the great Atlantic unfurling to the southeast, it takes nothing to hold 21st-century complications at bay. They vanish in the face of this ancient shore, indifferent to our scurrying. Stand here, and you take in a view unchanged for millennia, its preternatural endurance a reminder of the small blip we register on the planet’s hide.
Homer, infatuated with detail, had never embraced such cosmic scope. He didn’t care for notions of spontaneity or immediacy, the growing fashion of his day. He planned, took care, made note. For years, Homer had been honing, simplifying, paring down his visual language, deepening his command of the inherent play between color and light. He was, in those technical realms, already a master, with an intuitive sense of his materials and how to make them dance. What he lacked was a subject to that strain him, a challenge to become more than simply a vessel for the scene in front of him.
After the war, Homer tried on for size the epic ambitions of European history painting, finding them grandiose and ill-fitting. His pretty pictures of seasides and farmers were tight little confections, lyrically colorful short stories but little more. Here, anchored alongside the thundering sea, the artist finally found something more, a force perplexingly constant but always in flux, a scene, no matter how long he looked, he could never quite resolve. It made for a paradox — a place with which he was deeply intimate but that was forever elusive. It gave his pictures an enigmatic charge they never had — a joyful futility of the thing he sought being forever beyond his grasp.
Homer’s paintings had almost always put people at their center, whether basking in the pleasures of friendly nature or stoically alone in a forest. In Maine, the people in his pictures are expressions of land and sea, entirely at their mercy. The two women of “Saco Bay,” from 1896, pick carefully along the shore, wary of the fading sun and what the looming dusk may bring. And I won’t ever forget walking into the Clark Art Institute for the first time and into “Undertow,” from 1886, with a pair of burly lifeguards braving icy waves to pull from their grasp two women in heavy bathing costumes. The bleak northern light glinting off the rippling waters still chills me to the core; the limp exhaustion of one woman borders on beatific, a surrender to the sea.
Homer heard of such an incident in New Jersey some years before and transposed it to the frigid waters near home; this painter of “no imagination,” left staring day in, day out at the same scene, had his mind set free.
On the way from the studio to the shore, you pass through a wooden gate marking a path through the brush, as Homer would have done, and drop onto stone patterned with veins that look almost like wood grain. Shards of rock rear up like the heads of leviathans, sloping from shore to water, which gently churned on the day of my visit — lapping, not heaving, as it did in so many of Homer’s best paintings. It’s an easy scramble to Eastern Point, where his 1900 painting of the same name captured the sea at its most violent, waves misting at their crests; or to the broad shelves of stone where “Weatherbeaten,” from 1894, almost surely took place.
Putting my feet on that shore gave an unshakable sense of deja vu. It looks, unnervingly, I thought, as though the paintings came first, with the coast built to match. It’s that uncannily close — less a physical resemblance than one that bores into your sense of reality.
Looking up to the studio, where Homer spent endless hours staring into winter storms pounding the very rocks on which I was standing, it was clear something much deeper than accuracy had left me feeling rattled. This was Homer’s place in every imaginable way, an intimacy forged over decades — his love of it, his fear of it, his fascination with its relentless mutability. Homer came to understand no point here could ever be fixed, that it would resist his every effort to make it so. In looking so desperately long, this was the place where Winslow Homer came to truly see.
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.