The Artful Traveler: Rarely Seen Works by Winslow Homer in Portland, Maine
Artists Sketching in the White Mountains. Winslow Homer.
Reviewed by Steve Jermanok
By most accounts, Winslow Homer had a sardonic sense of humor. In his studio in Prouts Neck, Maine, where he created his best known works, hangs a sign in bold black letters that reads: "SNAKES! SNAKES! MICE!" The artist wrote this to discourage "the damned old women," his reference to the summer visitor, from disturbing him while working on the rocky shoreline. Sketchbook in hand, he would wait patiently for nature to provide the tense drama. Wait for the merciless Maine climate, replete with dense fog and forceful gales to roll in, thrusting the waves against the shoreline of rock. Wait for the weather to take a turn for the worse and trap an unfortunate fisherman in his small dinghy on the rocky outcroppings as the angry waves bathe him in salt.
Rarely do we see a lighter side of Homer. So it comes as a delightful surprise to view the oil, Artists Sketching in the White Mountains (1868), where we find a self-portrait of a younger Homer, his handlebar mustache extending out from his face, the last in a line of three painters depicting the mountain scenery. The work is rich in whimsy, the romanticized version of the artist working under the umbrella for shade, his bottle of wine atop a nearby stump, with rucksack labeled in black bold letters, "HOMER," strewn on the ground behind him. You can't help but laugh, finding it hard to believe that Homer ever painted in a sports jacket and hat.
Artists Sketching in the White Mountains is one of the 28 works on display through September 6 in an exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art titled "Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place." Created to honor the centennial of Homer's death, this gem of a show is on the second floor of the museum, backed by plum-colored walls. Enter the first room and peer at Weatherbeaten (1894), one of Homer's iconic works of waves thrashing foam against the rock, and you realize the show doesn't progress chronologically. Instead it's paired by subject matter.
Trappers Resting (1874). Winslow Homer.
On the back wall, you find the watercolor, Trappers Resting (1874), where two rugged guides, one with beard and rifle, are on either side of a beautifully rendered birchbark canoe. Created in the Adirondacks, you can feel the thick moss and deep forest interior. According to Thomas Denenberg, curator of the exhibition, who provides an audio tour via any cell phone, Homer was one of the first male artists to dabble in watercolors.
Bringing the Nets (1887). Winslow Homer.
The medium was favored by women who would never think of portraying two ragged men in the wild or a lone fishermen draped in nets, as seen in Bringing in the Nets (1887). Set in the British Cullercoats, the young man wades knee-deep in water, a wind blowing the marsh grass in the foreground.
Two Men in a Canoe (1895). Winslow Homer.
Homer is at the top of his game in Two Men in a Canoe (1895). The fishermen glide in front of a large island in the province of Quebec, their ripples in the water a line of white gouache that slices through the reflection. One fisherman throws out his long wisp of line, which curves back towards the island in a graceful arch. The water is so lucid and the scene so serene that you'd dive into the watercolor if there wasn't a security guard looking over your shoulder.
You can view 250 of Homer's illustrations in the Portland Museum of Art collection.