Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Visit to Homer's Studio in Maine

By: Paul D'Ambrosio, Vice President and Chief Curator
All art is local. No matter how much you study a particular painting you never truly understand it until you have seen the spot it depicts. I recently traveled to Maine and took the opportunity to pay a visit to the Winslow Homer Studio in Prouts Neck.

It was fortunate that the director of the Studio Project, Dan O’Leary, was so generous with his time as to meet my wife Anna and me on a Saturday morning to show us the site, which is not yet open to the public. The studio was purchased by the Portland Museum of Art a few years ago and they have been carefully restoring it to the period in which it was inhabited by Homer, from the 1800s until his death in 1910. Dan O'Leary, Director of the Homer Studio Project and the new President of MWPAI, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the studio, still in the process of restoration and not yet open to the public.
I have been familiar with the Prouts Neck paintings for some time: there are great examples in the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester and the Clark Art Institute, among others. What I did not understand until visiting Prouts Neck was that many of the oft-published notions about Homer are not as simple as they seem.

Homer lived a private, isolated existence in Prouts Neck. Well, he did have his brother Charles’ house about 200 feet away, where he went for meals prepared by his sister Matty. Homer kept to himself and didn’t like visitors. True, he was not keen on people stopping by the studio unannounced after he had achieved fame, but he also made friends with a number of the local fisherfolk and included them in his paintings. He also had a sense of humor: when someone asked him where all the empty rum bottles in his studio came from, he replied that he didn’t know; he had never bought an empty rum bottle in his life.
Lastly, Homer is a faithful transcriber of nature. Yes and no; he was very accurate in his depictions of natural phenomena that he observed daily, but he also took artistic license by creating composites that altered or combined a variety of elements. Waves that occur at high tide and low tide are seen together; islands are left out of the background; a distant view of the rocky coast is combined with a close-up of the studio building. The results are hard to argue with; nobody captured raw nature like Winslow Homer, who lived on its doorstep for much of his life.
Cannon Rock, one of Homer's favorite spots, just about 100 yards from the studio.
As I mentioned above, the studio and grounds are not yet open to the public. The Portland Museum of Art hopes to complete the restoration in the next few years and open the site for visitation. In the meantime, the museum has a wonderful gallery of Homer’s work in its main building.

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