Homer at home
I usually travel to my parents’ house in Maine for Thanksgiving, and this year was no exception.
And though my parents have only lived in this house for about eight years, it’s a place I know well: My grandfather grew up there, and we spent one or two weeks there each summer when I was a kid. On Friday we did one of my favorite activities: The Cliff Walk on Prouts Neck. Prouts Neck is a rocky peninsula just down the road from my parents’ house, and the cliff walk winds around the peninsula, over sandy beaches and rocks, offering an expansive view of the sea. The area is best known as the home of the great American artist Winslow Homer, whose studio on Prouts Neck was recently refurbished by the Portland Museum of Art and opened to tour groups. Many of Homer’s most famous paintings depict the rugged coastline of Prouts Neck and the pounding surf; his studio features a deck from which he could observe the ocean in all seasons and types of weather.
The first Homer painting I ever saw, a lithograph of the foreboding 1885 oil painting “The Fog Warning,” belonged to my grandfather, whose parents knew Homer, and hung in his living room. My great-grandparents ran a hotel on Prouts Neck called the Checkley House and Homer stayed there before moving into his studio. I’m not sure how close my great-grandparents were to Homer, but the Checkley House did feed him; according to my father, Homer would lower a flag when he wanted food. This personal history probably helps explain why I’m such a big fan of Homer, but his work continues to touch and resonate with many people, as I discovered when I went to the Portland Museum of Art’s “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine” exhibit on Saturday.
The exhibit was timed to coincide with the opening of the Winslow Homer studio this fall, and features many of Homer’s most notable works, such as “High Cliff, Coast of Maine,” “Eight Bells” and “Fox Hunt.” There’s even an etching of “The Fog Warning,” which made me think of my grandfather. The museum also has a webcam that provides visitors with real-time footage of the view from Homer’s studio, which means that every time I do the cliff walk I’ll appear on the TV that hangs in the lobby.
“Weatherbeaten” is well worth a visit, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering it showcases some of the greatest works by one of America’s greatest artists. Seeing all these paintings together, along with the informative blurbs on the museum walls, helped me understand Homer’s worldview a bit better: His sense of man’s smallness and insignificance in the face of an uncompromising natural world. To Homer, the natural world was a grim place, where death and danger lurked around every corner or just over the horizon, rather than a place of order and beauty. This is especially clear in his haunting painting “The Fox Hunt,” which depicts a fox searching for food in the snow while crows circle ominously overhead.
“Weatherbeaten” ends on Dec. 30, but two other Homer-related exhibits run into February. One of them showcases contemporary photographs of Homer’s studio taken by five different photographers, and the other examines the relationship between Homer and the Portland Society of Art, the precursor to the Portland Art Museum. This exhibit features watercolors and paintings by members of the Portland Society of Art, as well as architectural drawings and paintings by Homer himself. Both of these exhibits provide a nice complement to “Weatherbeaten,” and present a rich and interesting portrait of the artist and the local arts community.
Of course, if you can’t make it to Portland, Maine, anytime soon, the American art collection at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie features 21 Winslow Homer paintings.
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