Winslow Homer’s Maine Studio
By Everett Potter
A couple of weeks ago, on a day when the sky over the Gulf of Maine was a cloudless, Bahamian blue, I literally walked into the seascape of a Winslow Homer painting. Never mind that Homer rarely painted these flawless weather conditions – storm-lashed rocks and turbulent seas were his signatures. But I was fortunate to be there on a bluebird day and to be getting a peek at the American painter’s studio. This solid 19th century wooden building, renovated for Homer by legendary Maine architect John Calvin Stevens, overlooks the sea in the wealthy hamlet of Prouts Neck, Maine and only opened to the public for guided tours in late 2012.
Homer’s studio has been painstakingly and sensitively restored by Mills Whitaker Architects. If you go, you’ll not only see where the painter worked and lived but the seascape that inspired such works as The Lifeline and The Fog Warning.
The studio, a lyrical two story clapboard affair, has a prominent balcony, or piazza, as Homer called it in the parlance of the day. That gives it a nautical feel, and Homer’s brother Charles said that Homer nearly wore through the floorboards as he watched the Atlantic Ocean in its infinite moods.
It was Charles who built a nearby seaside home that he called The Ark, hoping to bring the entire Homer clan to Prout’s Neck. In 1883 Winslow Homer, by that time a successful 47 year old artist, decided to leave Manhattan and make Prouts Neck his home. His brother offered to build a studio for him, but the artist coveted The Ark’s carriage house. He also coveted his privacy, and had the building moved down the road, enlisting John Calvin Stevens, one of the prominent Shingle Style architects, to transform it.
Homer lived and painted here from 1883 until his death in 1910. In 2006, the Portland Museum of Art bought the house when Homer’s great-grand-nephew Charles Homer Willauer decided to sell it.
The renovation of the studio, which cost $2.8 million, required the removal of three bedrooms and a kitchen that had been added after Homer’s time, effectively bringing the studio back to about 1890. The structure was stabilized, and the original colors of dark green with red trim were redone.
The rooms have been left quite spare, with just a handful of artifacts that mark the artist’s presence. A window in the ground floor studio is like a camera lens, framing the view, and providing the same ratio as the painting Weatherbeaten.
From the piazza or from the lawn, you’re looking south towards Stratton Island and Bluff Island. A distant lighthouse on Wood Island off Biddeford is visible. On the day we visited, the audio level of the Maine surf was subdued and hypnotic — now you hear it, now you don’t. It is the dramatic Maine coast of your dreams, and could easily move you to take up a brush, or at the very least raise your Smartphone and take a few photographs.
“Homer liked to perpetuate the myth of the hermit artist,” explained Kristen Levesque, a museum spokesperson, “But in fact, he wore Brooks Brothers suits and had food shipped to him from Boston. He was actually more of a country gentleman. Every day, he would hoist a flag on the balcony and lunch would be delivered to him from the nearby Checkley Hotel.”
In the tradition of such 19th century gentlemen, Homer was also a hunter and fisherman, activities that appear in some of his best paintings. Maine was his home, but he traveled and painted in Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Adirondacks and Quebec, and on the studio walls are crudely mounted Atlantic salmon that he presumably caught, his fishing rod and net, and an eel spear. If you’re sharp eyed, you can find “Winslow” etched in tiny letters in the library alcove.
Still, he did not wish to be disturbed by rusticators, as vacationers to Maine were known a century ago. Over the fireplace in his studio is a crude sign he painted and left outside, a sign that announces “Snakes Snakes Mice” to frighten away anyone who thought to snoop.
Leaving the studio, we took a walk along the cliff walk, where the same rocks that Homer painted over a century ago remain, including Cannon Rock, looking much as they did in his time. The surf crashed, cormorants dived for fish, and legions of butterflies worked the wildflowers that grew between the rocks. It felt like we were inhabiting a Homer painting.
Making our way back on a path through beach roses, my daughter cried out “Daddy, a snake!”
Sure enough, a little Garter snake was slithering into the hedge roots.
“Snakes Snakes Mice” indeed.
Homer hadn’t been bluffing. More than a century after his death, the life force of this extraordinary painter — not to mention his seascapes and snakes — still seems very much alive.
IF YOU GO:
Winslow Homer Studio. Because of the studio’s location, in a gated residential neighborhood, visitor numbers are quite restricted. Reservations and information: (207) 775-6148.