Down a narrow road that traces the Atlantic shore in southern Maine sits a series of large, shingled homes with names like Twainways, Daisy Sailer and Juniper Ledge. Many are weather-beaten, with gardens of day lilies, hydrangeas and lilacs grown a bit wild.
Of the roughly 160 homes on Prouts Neck, a very private parcel of land that juts into the sea south of Scarborough, a handful are new or newly restored. But one of the houses tucked up close to the road stands out for its almost perfect condition. It is painted a dark green, and the trim is a deep red. Unlike most others along the sea there, it is relatively small, though it has a second-story balcony that offers a pristine view of the ocean across a manicured, if simple, lawn and the jagged rocks that hug the coast.
This little house was Winslow Homer’s studio, where he lived during much of his last 25 years and painted some of his most dramatic oils. Walk down a small trail from the front lawn through wild brush to the right places on the craggy coast and you may well be standing where Homer stood when he painted “High Cliff, Coast of Maine” — with the sea hurling itself against the rocks and waves exploding toward the sky in giant billows hard white against the chilling black-brown of the stones — or “Weatherbeaten,” another dramatic seascape. Stand on those rocks and look back toward Homer’s studio, just as it was when he worked so assiduously in its “factory,” the painting room that his brother Charles Jr. added in 1890, the room where the artist died in 1910 with his brothers around him.
Three years ago, Charles Homer Willauer, who had inherited his great-great-uncle’s studio, sold it to the Portland Museum of Art for nearly $1.9 million. The museum is deep into a renovation it hopes to complete by 2012. While the studio is on a private road, it will be open to small groups by special arrangement after the work is finished.
Once visitors have access to the studio, they will be able to look from its balcony and see, off to the right, the house, now remodelled, that once belonged to the artist’s father, Charles Homer Sr., and later to Charles Jr. and Homer’s beloved sister-in-law Mattie.
“Nowhere else is there so rich a spectrum of an artist’s chosen subject matter,” said Daniel O’Leary, a former director of the Portland Museum of Art and the studio project. “There is no place like it in America because no where else can you see a great American artist’s inspiration take shape and observe the actual views that he enriches and preserves. At no other single spot can you see 15 or 16 views that inspired great paintings.”
Though Winslow Homer was said to be something of a hermit for much of his life, Prouts, as the locals call it, provided a community of family, friends, local fishermen and workers with whom he had long and close relationships.
Other art colonies flourished at the end of the 19th century in the Northeast, as painters sought communities where they could live and work. But it was at Prouts Neck — where a tight knit collection of families had already summered for years, and many of the same families still come to sail, bike, swim and golf — that Homer, a lifelong bachelor, found companionship, inspiration and, most important, a sense of place.
Little has changed since. Prouts Neck is not easily accessible to visitors, and that is fine with the summer residents — not so much from snobbery, they say, but from a desire to keep it as unspoiled as possible.
Today members of the Sprague clan of Boston, the Bolton family of Cleveland, the Gates of Kansas City and the Merricks of Philadelphia still have homes in Prouts Neck and visit annually, according to Willauer. Just across from the studio is St. James Episcopal Church, where Charles Homer Sr. was treasurer and some of his descendants still worship.
So eager are residents to keep the area as tranquil as they remember it from when they were growing up that when the former owner of Prouts’ single hotel — the Black Point Inn, a vast shingled affair built at the entrance to Prouts Neck — wanted to sell it, the locals stepped in. Led by Robert Gould, whose family has been visiting Prouts Neck since his great-grandmother bought land from the Homer family in 1910, a group of 40 residents bought the hotel for about $20 million, then tore down part of the hotel, including 59 of the 85 rooms and cottages, and sold much of the land to people who have built homes there.
The Homer connection to Prouts Neck was forged in 1875 when Winslow’s other brother, Arthur, took his wife to the then-popular Willows Hotel for their honeymoon. Arthur built his house in 1881, and Charles Sr. followed two years later, buying a home that he named the Ark.
By 1884, Winslow Homer, who was born in Boston, was spending summers and part of the rest of the year at Prouts Neck. The high season still brings sailboats to the waters between Prouts Neck and Bluff and Stratton Islands to the south. Homer’s paintings of the scene, however, do not convey the Impressionist tranquillity of a Monet seascape. Even on a sunny day, the sea off the Maine coast is not really tranquil; the deep gray-blue waters rush aggressively against the rocks.
Certainly, Homer was obsessed with the sea and the area around it. “He walked the Cliff Walk every day,” O’Leary said. “He studied the waves with his dog Sam and spent long hours sitting on the balcony of his studio studying the sea.” He even loved the winter and would often stay on at Prouts Neck long after family and friends had departed. “His rule was that he would stay until his water bucket froze solid,” O’Leary said.
But the canvases, albeit evocative of the Maine coast, are not necessarily literal representations. “Cannon Rock,” set on a spot just 90 meters from his home, bears little resemblance to the actual place. The oil depicts an offshore wave breaking over a submerged shelf. In the foreground, water rushes into an inlet formed by the rocks. In reality, the offshore wave would break only at low tide, but the wave fills the inlet only at high tide. The artist also rearranged the horizontal ledges of rock into a triangle so that “it rivets attention on his main motive,” the Homer expert Philip Beam wrote in “Winslow Homer in the 1890s: Prout’s Neck Observed.”
Family members and experts have spent years at Prouts Neck assessing just how realistic Homer was in his seascapes. In “Northeaster,” he painted a storm in full fury, with giant bursts of spray and fierce waves. Because of the size of the waves, some critics have wondered whether they were real or whether Homer had exaggerated them. But according to Beam, Charles Lowell Homer, Winslow Homer’s nephew, monitored autumn storms at Prouts for a several years, finally recording one of comparable force.
Yet many mysteries remain about the artist and his work at Prouts, especially because Homer left no written record of how he worked or the real-life inspirations for his paintings. For example, experts are still guessing about the actual setting for “A Summer Night,” the famous scene of two women dancing by moonlight near the rocks. Though there is no moon, its light falls brilliantly across the waves, illuminating the landscape and the dancers. (The painting is in the permanent collection of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.)
There is still debate about whether the painting was set at the rocks in front of the studio or in front of what was then the Checkley House Hotel. “What makes me mad when they show that picture is that they say it was painted in front of the studio,” Willauer said. He recalled that his older brother, Peter, remembered being told by Charles Lowell Homer that the painting was done in front of the Checkley.
Today, Charles Willauer is very much the keeper of the family flame. Almost every Sunday in the summer, as he has done the last 54 years, he leads a ritual at the Prouts Neck Yacht Club in which three and four generations of members — down to 5- and 6-year-olds — gather to sing from a songbook assembled for club members. It includes “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” “Little Liza Jane” and “Streets of Laredo.”
It has been going on mostly nonstop since World War II, when because the club was so near the entrance to the busy harbour in Portland, Willauer’s grandfather and other residents wanted to ensure that a blackout was maintained. The sing, it was thought, would keep the shades down by keeping everyone occupied in one place.
But it is not just his relatives and studio that keep Winslow Homer a vibrant presence. Indeed, Homer lore permeates the community. There is a 12,000-book Charles E. Thomas Library, named for the man who once owned the house. Its card catalogue holds a small collection of books about the artist, a number of which are out of print. The small wood building, with its nooks for reading, is tucked in the woods at Prouts. Because the library is private, it does not even have a phone to receive incoming calls. “That is to keep the tradition of the more than 100-year-old library,” said the librarian, Marla Bonneau.
Books aside, the greatest learning experience is simply to stroll the Cliff Walk, which the artist walked, studied and painted so often in his lifetime.