Some Western art history books do not mention an American artist until Winslow Homer. A case can be made that Homer (1836-1910) was the first truly great American painter, certainly that he was the greatest of the 19th century, possibly even that he is the greatest American artist of all time. Apologies to Jackson Pollock.
At a time when America and American art were still searching for an identity, Homer cut through all the froth and frippery of European Impressionism and derivative American Impression to establish a style of muscular naturalism that defined the independent American spirit. Homer’s art was all about man versus wild, the elemental struggle between the forces of civilization and the forces of nature.
The paintings that established Homer as an American master were the seascapes he painted at the end of his life and he might not have painted them at all had he not moved to Maine in 1883. As I have written elsewhere, “If Homer’s career had ended prior to his moving to Prouts Neck in Scarborough, he might be remembered as an important graphic artist and as a painter of American genre scenes, yet not even one universally admired by the critics of his day.”
In what has been billed as a Year of Winslow Homer, the Portland Museum of Art is celebrating its cultural connections to Homer and Prouts Neck with the opening of the newly-renovated and restored Homer Studio, an exhibition of Homer’s Maine work, and an exhibition of contemporary photographs taken at Homer’s Studio,
In a sense, the Portland Museum of Art owes its current existence to Winslow Homer, or rather to the late Charles Shipman Payson’s gift of his Homer paintings and a subsequent gift of cash that created the 1983 Charles Shipman Payson wing, a modernist landmark and art treasure box on Portland’s Congress Square.
The masterwork of the Payson collection is Weatherbeaten, a signature 1894 painting of waves pounding against the rocky coast at Prouts Neck. For its Homer celebration, the museum has placed its masterpiece in the context of 37 other works created during Homer’s final decade in Maine.
Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine (through December 30) features oil paintings, watercolors and etchings borrowed from private collectors and other museums. The museum is adding a $5 surcharge to see the Homer show to its usual $12 admission fee.
The occasion for the Year of Winslow Homer is the opening of the Homer Studio, which the museum acquired and restored at a cost of $2.8 million, the total Homer Studio campaign running to $10.8 million to preserve and endow Maine’s most important art historical landmark. (The only other places that come close are the Olson House in Cushing made famous by Andrew Wyeth and maybe the Cape Elizabeth lighthouses painted by Edward Hopper.) The studio will be open to the public on a limited and controlled basis between September 25 and December 2. For a fee of $55 each, ten studio visitors at a time will be driven in a van from the museum to the studio. There will also be a spring visiting season between April 2 and June 14, 2013.
The limited public access is a concession to the Homer Studio’s unfortunate location behind the locked gates of Maine’s most exclusive summer colony. Back in 1936, on the centenary of Homer’s birth, a memorial exhibition of 70 of his paintings was held at the Homer Studio. Some 2,200 people viewed the exhibition during its two week run. Prouts Neckers today would have conniptions if the public were allowed to visit the Homer Studio at will.
In the past, the Homer Studio was open mostly by appointment and what visitors ushered in by the late Doris Homer would find was just a dark, dank room filled with Homer reproductions and a few moth-eaten mementoes. It was Prouts Neck itself that inspired Homer’s greatest work. His spirit was in the wind and the waves, not the musty old studio. I’m sure the renovated Homer Studio is lovely and grand, but I have a feeling Homer still isn’t there.
In keeping with Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire’s mission of making the past relevant, the Year of Winslow Homer is also being celebrated with a contemporary exhibition entitled Between Past and Present: The Homer Studio Photographic Project (October 6 to February 17, 2013). The exhibition features the work of five photographers who work in antique processes. Abelardo Morell (camera obscura), Keliy Anderson-Staley (wet-plate collodion), Brenton Hamilton (salt prints and gum bichromate), Tillman Crane (platinum prints) and Alan Vlach (salted paper prints) use technologies available in Winslow Homer’s day to interpret his studio and environs.
[Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, ME, 207-775-6148.]