PORTLAND and PROUTS NECK, Maine — Timed to coincide with the opening of the renovated Winslow Homer Studio at Prouts Neck, “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine” is a show of Homer’s late, great spray-smashed work, all of it painted (or etched) at Prouts Neck. The show of 38 oil paintings, watercolors, and etchings includes loans from major museums as well as private collections.
Its title comes from the 1894 painting “Weatherbeaten” (which actually left Homer’s studio as “Storm-Beaten”). It shows a wave rolling in and hitting the big tumbledown rocks that are a minute’s walk from the room where Homer created it. Robert Henri, a painter and teacher who revered Homer, wrote of the wave’s integrity: “The big, strong thing can only be the result of big strong seeing.”
And that, really, is the essence of it: Homer’s late work from Prouts Neck is not just poetic or picturesque, it’s muscularly in motion.
Homer was the first American artist to find a way of painting storm-churned seas and surf that truly honored their heaving, land-pounding force. He brought the sea close, and left you alone with it.
And after seeing the studio, which Portland Museum of Art acquired in 2006 from Homer descendant Charles Homer Willauer, you register what you may have known intellectually but didn’t fully, perhaps, grasp — that Homer’s late paintings are a direct outgrowth of his own closeness to the sea, his own being left alone with it.
Fruity stories about Homer and the studio abound. He is often described as a recluse, resentful of his fame, who tried to thwart prying curiosity-seekers by putting up a sign outside warning of “Snakes Snakes and Mice.” He painted away with demonic devotion, and ran a white flag up the flagpole when he wanted meals delivered.
The sign and flagpole stories may both be true (the relevant props can be seen at the studio now). But most of the rest is exaggeration. Homer and his extended family had put down roots in the Prouts Neck community. The painter himself had a winning sociable streak.
He repaired to Prouts Neck, a narrow spit of land just south of Portland, in 1883. The Homer family had substantial real estate holdings there, and they hired architect John Calvin Stevens to build a spacious summer house right by the sea. It was known as the Ark.
In 1884, Stevens set about transforming the Ark’s carriage house into both a home and a studio for Winslow. The Portland Museum of Art has done a great job renovating and restoring the space. “The redesigned carriage house,” writes PMA director Mark Bessire, “may not be the most architecturally significant building in the state, but it is among the most treasured.” (The statement, and its sensitivity to the material legacy left behind by great cultural figures, may make the leaders of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum wince: They knocked down a carriage house of comparable significance in order to build their new wing.)
The architect Stevens, by the way, was hyperactive through this period both at Prouts Neck and in Portland. He helped found the Portland Society of Art, which later became the PMA, designing first its clubhouse and later its first dedicated exhibition space. The Lorenzo de Medici Sweat Memorial Galleries are still the core of the PMA’s historic collections. The museum is making much of the Stevens, Homer, Prouts Neck, and Portland connections in smaller exhibits that complement “Weatherbeaten.”
Homer, when all is said and done, is as fundamental to American art as Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol. He painted pictures that tremble and pulse with latent drama. He had worked as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War, so he had become adept at depicting human drama well before falling under the sway of the elemental drama he saw from his studio at Prouts Neck.
Indeed, he was a born storyteller, the product of an era that had not yet turned “illustration” into a pejorative (as modernist dogma was to do). Somehow, however, he was almost never cheesy. Even his sun-kissed pictures of schoolchildren have a bracing, open air, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may quality.
Homer, who grew up in Cambridge, was American enough to have sloughed off — without giving it too much thought — the dry skin of academic sentimentality that prevailed in official 19th-century art. This was the same quality the French avant-garde were kicking against, beginning with Courbet and then Manet. But Homer seemed to arrive at his late style more innocently, without the Oedipal struggle of his European counterparts.
And it’s only when you go to Prouts Neck that you begin to feel how this might have happened. (Tours of the studio are booked through mid-November.) There’s nothing like the force of place, and nothing like knowing something by heart. At Prouts Neck, Homer, an inveterate traveler, let himself succumb to what Lucian Freud called “downward travel.” He meant “getting to know where you are, better, and exploring feelings that you know, more deeply.” Everything else be damned.
Only someone who had paced up and down along the rock coastline in all weathers could have painted a picture like “High Cliff, Coast of Maine,” from the Smithsonian Institution, with its daringly high and mist-blurred horizon and its bold diagonal division of the composition: Sea meets land. Ka-boom!
The impact is visceral. You get up close wanting to know how it’s done, how Homer gets the hair to stand up on your arms in a way that other paintings of the sea simply don’t.
We’re not, let’s be clear, talking about expressionism. Talk of “spontaneous emotion” and “unconscious expression” don’t pertain here. What’s really going on on the surface of these paintings is more complex and subtle. It relates not just to texture, but to the direction of Homer’s brushstrokes; not just to color (and what a fresh and thrilling colorist he could be!) but to tone — to the many subtle shifts in degrees of light that he used to bolster the big, dramatic contrasts he favored.
Homer really looked at the sea, and he fought to find painted equivalents for what he saw. Scumbling and thick impasto punctuate the top layers of his paintings. But often, surprisingly, they are overlaid by the softest, most mistily amorphous passages of paint. Why? Because some spray is thin and atmospheric, almost soaked up by the ambient air. Other kinds of spray are thick, foamy, drenching. They give texture to the visible.
All these distinctions and jostling phenomena combine in Homer’s paintings to produce an all-at-once, all-over experience, with forces flying in every direction and at every speed. A wave crashes, with a spurt of explosive velocity, and meanwhile the slow-heaving swell of the next wave is on its way, as riptides and winds contend and collapse.
I sense all this in Homer’s paintings, but I don’t, finally, need to analyze it. I feel it. And so did generations of artists after Homer: His success was to have a simply enormous impact on American modernist painting — on the accelerating drive for simplicity, for immediacy, for a palpable connection with elemental forces, and in the deepening belief in the expressive potential of the paint’s facture, culminating in Abstract Expressionism. (It is interesting to see this show after the exhibition of abstract expressionist paintings and prints in “Robert Motherwell: By the Sea” at the Provincetown Artists Association and Museum; both artists were obsessed with the painterly excitements of trying to capture the force of sea meeting land.)
Seeing so many great paintings of crashing surf does not, strangely, get monotonous. Rather, the effect is to redouble and consolidate the excitement of each individual work.
But there are also other subjects in this show. And perhaps the most lovely — the most unexpectedly calm and even Whistlerian — is Homer’s 1894 rendering of his own studio called “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog.”
It’s a painting of delicate and poignant feeling. And even for those of us less weatherbeaten than Homer, it’s a painting we can all relate to. Who, after all, has not looked back at his or her own abode in dying light and been quietly awed by the sight?
“The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog” is the work that kicks off this magnificent show. It’s an apt place to end this review.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.