Weatherbeaten: Prouts Neck and Winslow Homer

BY THOMAS A. DENENBERG

Fig. 1: Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Eight Bells, 1886. Oil on canvas, 25C/af x 30C/af inches. Courtesy, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, Gift of anonymous donor.
Winslow Homer (1836–1910) arrived at Prouts Neck, Maine, in 1883 a well-known, albeit critically controversial figure in the then-small circle of established American artists. Born in Boston in 1836 and trained as a commercial illustrator in the antebellum era, Homer came to national attention during the Civil War as a special correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. With the support of a close-knit family, he transitioned to a career as a fine artist while living in New York City at the end of the conflict and made a name for himself painting images of the war and producing genre scenes for an expanding nation.

Throughout the 1870s Homer made his living as an illustrator and artist. Although he maintained space in the Tenth Street Studio Building, the most important and socially prominent address for painters in America, Homer developed a reputation as something of a curmudgeon.1 This theme became fully realized with the move to Prouts Neck where the painter actively cultivated a persona of a man alone and apart from the world. This need to be singular quickly appeared in his paintings.

Fig. 2: Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Prouts Neck in Winter, 1892. Oil on canvas, 13¼ x 23 inches. Courtesy, Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The heroic narrative of Homer’s work of the 1880s such as Eight Bells (Fig. 1) gave way to paintings of place and frank geographic encounters as seen in Prouts Neck in Winter (Fig. 2). In 1894, Homer painted a meditation on the littoral that left his studio bearing the name Storm-Beaten. The closely composed image of wave striking rock, retitled by Homer before 1902, carried a description of natural process, action, and aging. The painting passed into the twentieth century as Weatherbeaten (Fig. 3).

“All of Homer’s experience and practice in figure painting and landscape have led up to his inimitable seascapes,” wrote the critic Frederick Morton in 1902, “which he paints as no other artist ever did or can.”2 An earlier generation of American painters relied on pictorial conventions of the sublime; Homer eschewed such romance in Weatherbeaten, however, in favor of painting a life lesson for the modern era, a visual poem about time and constancy.

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. A lightening horizon points to the resolution of atmospheric drama in the near future. Two salient gestures of omission and one of commission lend authority to the composition and make the work an icon of American painting. First, as with many late works, Homer elected to eliminate the nineteenth-century convention of staffage—there is no need for human scale in his reckoning, and to include figures would only add distracting sentiment. Second, and more important, Homer altered the landscape itself. In a masterstroke of erasure, Homer chose to hide any trace of two nearby islands—Bluff and Stratton—in a bank of fog at midcanvas. In doing so he created a boundless Atlantic Ocean, denying the viewer a sense of protection.

Fig. 3: Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Weatherbeaten, 1894. Oil on canvas, 28½ x 48W inches. Courtesy, Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson.

Having tightly described the wave and limned the rocks in warm reddish brown tones to convey a notion of mineral content and organic glaze, Homer applied an elongated rectangle of gray pigment, rising out of the foam and paralleling the prominent formation at left. A strident gesture, the gray stripe holds the eye just long enough to allow the image to begin to decay at its margins. Neither land nor water, light nor shadow, the gray stripe is a clarion call in paint. Earlier in his career, Homer was chastised for such behavior, but by 1894, the artist was well past middle age, enjoying a comfortable life, and playing his hand as he chose.

Homer’s gray stripe is a masterstroke of creative independence and artistic confidence. Unlike his carefully scripted, if enigmatic, genre scenes of the 1870s and even the salon-scale “story-telling” masterworks of the 1880s, Weatherbeaten is an intense, muscular painting. With great intentionality, Homer worked the canvas until it satisfied his sensibilities and then boldly painted a large, gray window into the future. It is Homer’s gift to the coming age, a century that would cultivate abstraction as a form of religion. It is no great wonder that the next generation of painters responded to Homer as a kindred spirit, if not a father figure. Indeed, the influential teacher Robert Henri lionized Homer in his manifesto The Art Spirit: “His work would hold a business man straight. He gives the integrity of the oncoming wave. The big strong thing can only be the result of big strong seeing.”3 Henri’s student Rockwell Kent took up the theme of fortitude, deriding Homer’s early career as an illustrator and figure painter in favor of the late paintings: “Homer the Realist: why realism was his job in his youth! Strong, simple, honest, true, and by the power of those qualities profoundly moving, we claim him proudly as an exemplar of the American character.”4

Winslow Homer Studio-Southwest Corner, 2012 ©trentbellphotography.

Winslow Homer Studio, Prouts Neck, Maine, Opening September 25, 2012, For information visit www.portandmuseum.org

In the years after Homer’s death in 1910, his studio became a site of pilgrimage. Nearly a century later, in 2006, the museum purchased the property from the artist’s great grand-nephew and has been restoring it to the period when Homer lived and painted there from 1883 until his death twenty-seven years later. The studio, located along the rocky coast just twelve miles from the museum, will open this September. Visitors will enjoy tours of the studio and experience it as it was during the artist’s life. Notes museum director Mark Bessire of this National Historic Landmark, “The modest twenty-two-hundred-square-foot structure is the place where some of the most iconic American paintings were created at the turn or the twentieth century.”

Fig. 4: Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Eastern Point, 1900. Oil on canvas, 30¼ x 48½ inches. Courtesy, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Strong, simple, big, honest—the adjectives employed to describe Homer’s painting in the period speak volumes about the anxieties of the era. As the United States came of age as a modern industrial nation, the enervating aspects of professional life provoked a host of concerns. The perceived loss of social economy—face-to-face relationships with individuals rather than institutions—coalesced into a general feeling of malaise or “weightlessness” for those who could afford such self-reflection.

Weatherbeaten, a painting of weather, rock, and ocean, offered an anchor for this anxious age. Homer’s initial biographer, William Howe Downes, wrote about the work in 1911, claiming an almost therapeutic capacity for the painting. “Reality is made more real; we are more acutely alive when brought into its presence. Our horizons expand…we take deeper breaths.”5 Such restorative promise may or may not have influenced William T. Evans, the pioneering collector of American painting, to purchase the work. As part of Evans’ well-known early collection of “native” painting, Weatherbeaten received popular attention through public exhibition, garnering the gold Medal of Honor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1896, and playing a key role in the creation of a canon of American painting before being sold in 1900. As for the healing qualities of the work, Evans died a modern end in 1918, the result of “a general breakdown caused by illness and overwork during the reorganization of his firm after it was forced into receivership,” according to his November 26 obituary in the New York Times.

As a visual adjective, Weatherbeaten reminds its viewers of timelines long and unknowable. Tides vary, waves will reveal their individual character if watched closely, but the constant, almost infinite process captured in the painting is a short course in the voyage of life and, ultimately, human insignificance. Weatherbeaten proposes something steadfast and reliable—nature, yes, but permanence in the universe. Sarah Burns has written eloquently of the way Homer’s late imagery came to stand in for public discourse on new patterns of economic life in turn-of-the-century America. “Speaking of nature on the surface,” she writes, “Homer’s paintings, specifically the later seascapes and hunting scenes that made his contemporary fame, at other levels spoke the language of business and wove metaphors evoking the ‘natural’ laws and rhythms of economic forces.” Homer’s retreat to Prouts Neck, then, long assumed to be a refuge from worldly cares for an artist who bore witness to the unprecedented bloodletting of the first modern war and negotiated a place for himself in the creative life of a rapidly reorganizing nation, reads today as the act of a man inextricably bound to the conditions of modernity.

Fig. 5: Winslow Homer (1836–1910), On a Lee Shore, 1900. Oil on canvas, 39 x 39 inches. Courtesy, Jesse Metcalf Fund, Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.
In point of fact, Homer’s time at Prouts Neck can be seen in light of the artist’s interconnected emotional and economic ties to his highly entrepreneurial family. By 1883, his father, Charles, and eldest brother were purchasing land there as well as a partially constructed house in the shadow of the Checkley Hotel that they finished and dubbed “The Ark.” The creation of a family compound on the coast is hardly a surprising act for a well-off family like the Homers, but the artist himself had a keen interest in economic life and material comfort.6 With a flair for real estate, Winslow and his brother Charles Jr. were active developers, so much so that by the time of Homer’s death in 1910, six hotels and some sixty private cottages dotted the neck.7

The depths to which Homer internalized the developing corporate culture of the United States is not to be underestimated. Living in an era of rapid economic expansion with concurrent cyclical financial malaise, Homer experienced the novel ups and downs of the myriad panics and market fluctuations of the age. The market fascinated Homer, and Weatherbeaten played an important role in the creation of a market for American art. In an era that prized European Old Masters gathered on the Grand Tour, witnessed the decline of academic painting, and heralded French impressionism, the market for contemporary American paintings proved to be long in coming and skittish on arrival. Critics decried the lack of interest as these American collections came to auction in the first decade of the twentieth century and wrote approvingly of the prices realized by select painters including Homer, who, in particular, proved to be an index painter. It was not lost on those who followed the market that Weatherbeaten gained value, from its initial sale to Evans in 1896 by M. Knoedler & Co. at $1,500, to the $4,000 that the painting realized when Evans broke up his initial collection in 1900, to the $11,000 the painting eventually brought when it was traded again shortly after Homer’s death.8 Homer’s attention to the commodity value of his work is evident in his letters and congruent with efforts to break ground in the burgeoning creative economy of the late nineteenth century.

Fig. 6: Winslow Homer (1836–1910), West Point, Prouts Neck, 1900. Oil on canvas, 30A/af x 48V inches. Courtesy, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute,
Williamstown, Massachusetts.
A mélange of Homer’s creative and entrepreneurial instincts led him to experiment with etching shortly after he settled at Prouts Neck (Fig. 4). Long familiar with commercial illustration—indeed until the previous decade this had been his stock in trade—Homer was likewise keenly aware of the international revival of interest in etching. For the most part, he hewed closely to the composition of paintings that had already garnered critical or popular attention such as The Life Line and Eight Bells. In translating his salon-scale works into etchings, Homer opened a new, more affordable market for his imagery.

By 1890 Homer had largely concluded graphic experimentation in favor of a return to painting in oil, and some of his most important work would leave his studio over the next two decades.9 In 1900, he painted a series of three large canvases, exhibiting them publically in various combinations that year and the next. Read by critics as a series, almost a triptych, Eastern Point, On a Lee Shore, and West Point, Prouts Neck, stand as a synecdoche for Homer’s late career and establish him as a singular figure in turn-of-the century America (Figs. 4–6).

Based on a sketch Homer produced, it is evident that he preferred a particular hanging order for the works, orientating the viewer to the compass in conventional fashion with West Point to the left as if in an atlas of the United States. This arrangement actually inverts the magnetic orientation of Prouts Neck. From Homer’s studio facing the rocks, east is to the left, leading to Cape Elizabeth, the entrance of Casco Bay, and eventually Portland and the maritime route “down east” the coast of Maine. The visual resolution proposed by Homer’s sketch, a journey leading to a calm, red sky, is inverted. To substitute On a Lee Shore, as Homer did, in the middle creates the fiction of a drama without conclusion. The schooner is in peril, amplified by a title implying the imminent danger of the rocks; however, the red sky and gestural wave at left leave the final chapter unwritten. Did the ship make it around Prouts Neck? Is the story over, the crew drowned? Reverse the order, as one would sail around the peninsula from the mouth of Saco Bay, between the islands off Prouts Neck and heading east, and the paintings present a very different narrative, that of continued danger and waves ripping across sharp rocks. Homer’s ability to compose a scene without prescribing an outcome is one of the salient features of his intellect and output that has captivated generations.

Homer’s late paintings read as a visual fulcrum between Victorian sentiment and modernist visual culture. They participate in the transition from a society that placed great currency in morality and order to one that came to acknowledge disorder and abstraction as the conditions of modernity. The commitment that Homer demonstrated at Prouts Neck in the last two decades of his life not only provided a model for a generation of painters to follow but engendered a new way of looking at the coast. Homer refocused attention on the timeless processes of wave, weather, and rock in an era of profound social change and made the coast of Maine a national landscape for the modern era.


Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine
, celebrates the opening of the restored Prouts Neck studio. The exhibit is on view from September 22 through December 30, 2012 at the Portland Museum of Art and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, from which this essay is amended. For information call 207.775.6148 or visit www.portlandmuseum.org.


Thomas A. Denenberg is director of Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont. As former deputy director and chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art, he is curator of Weatherbeaten.

1. Homer moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building in 1872 and left New York City for Prouts Neck in 1883.

2. Frederick W. Morton, “The Art of Winslow Homer,” in Brush and Pencil 10, no. 1 (April 1902): 47–48.

3. Robert Henri quoted in Bruce Robertson, “Perils of the Sea,” in Truettner and Stein, Picturing Old New England, 147.

4. Rockwell Kent, World Famous Paintings, (New York: Wise, 1947), entry 93.

5. Williams Howe Downes and Frank Torrey Robinson, Life and Works of Winslow Homer, (Boston: Houghton Miffline, 1911), 171.

6. See Tim Bolton, “‘The Right Place’: Winslow Homer and the Development of Prouts Neck,” in Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine (Yale University and Portland Museum of Art, 2012).

7. Philip C. Beam, Winslow Homer at Prouts Neck (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966), 31.

8. William H. Truettner, “William T. Evans, Collector of American Paintings,” in American Art Journal 3, no. 2 (Autumn 1971): 67.

9. Two statements from C. Klackner to Homer for $32.66 and $114.67 for the sale of etchings date from 1892 and 1893 in the collection of the Bowdoin College Art Museum and demonstrate the minimal level of activity realized by the endeavor in the 1890s. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of the Homer Family (1964.69.48).
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