Winslow Homer is considered one of the foremost painters in 19th century America and a preeminent figure in American art. In 1883, Homer moved to Prouts Neck, Maine and lived at his family’s estate in the remodeled carriage house just seventy-five feet from the ocean. The rustic marine themes inspired his art and is one of the most impressive, manly estates we’ve seen.
Even at first sight of Homer’s studio, his deliberate isolation is apparent. The original structure, protected by a small white fence, was built so that no windows faced the road. “If you think of it as a summer colony in the 1890s, that alone is really turning your back on the public,” says Tom Deneberg, the former Portland Museum of Arts chief curator who worked on the restoration for five years. “It’s all symbolic. Today, if you have a little money, you live in a gated community or have video cameras. In Homer’s day, it was as easy as creating a little social distance between yourself and the public.”
Though Homer’s main living room was said to be scarcely furnished, historians did their best to adorn it with his remaining belongings. Above his modest daybed hang china plates painted by his mother, Henrietta, fish that he taxidermied and painted, and photos, curated by Bowdoin College, of Homer with his family members and his fat terrier, Sam.
On a living-room window that faces the water, one can read the faint scratchings of Homer’s signature. “I’m so touched by that wonderful windowpane,” says John Wilmerding, a professor emeritus of American art at Princeton University who has visited the studio both before and after its renovation. “On one level it’s the schoolkid scratching initials into his desk, on the other hand it’s a full signature. In a way he was saying that the view through that window is a work of art.”
Homer often used dead animals (that he sometimes hunted himself) as models for his work, including his famous 1893 oil painting Fox Hunt,and his 1909 oil painting Right and Left. A talented businessman, he also understood his market. “I send you by the American Ex. today six watercolors of fishing subjects,” he wrote to his New York dealer in 1901. “They may be of interest to the fishmen now turned loose for Spring fishing.”
Homer was very well-known by the time he moved to Prouts Neck. The sign above his fireplace that reads “Snakes! Snakes! Mice!” was propped outside to ward off curious tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the artist. “There’s a great story,” says Kristen Levesque, the public-relations director of the Portland Museum of Art. “Once he was walking along the Cliff Walk, and this guy came up to him and he said, ‘Sir, do you happen to know where Winslow Homer is?’ And Homer said, ‘Why, are you looking for him?’ The man said, ‘Yes, I will give you 50 cents,’ or whatever it was, ‘to tell me where Winslow Homer is.’ Homer goes, ‘Well let me see that’ and grabs the coin from him and says, ‘You found him.’”
Homer’s daybed, easel, and this rocking chair are some of the few artifacts left from his time at Prouts Neck. The studio is “almost haunted in its emptiness,” says Wilmerding. “There’s a real sense of New England character—getting down to the bare essentials—that you see particularly in the late seascapes that were painted there.”
In the painting room, a rack displays several issues of Harper’s Weekly, the publication where Homer began his career as a stringer-illustrator drawing scenes from the Civil War.
“Unlike other artists’ homes that have been saved, there are very few that have survived intact,” says Wilmerding. “Here, you stand on that balcony, you look out those windows, and they were Homer’s subjects. It’s important as a place, not only to imagine the easel on the balcony or the easel in that upper room. He could look 20 yards at indiscriminate rock out in front of him and paint these bold, powerful, almost cosmic paintings, his universal vision of the essence of nature.”
Homer was said to own a flag that he raised around lunchtime. Waitstaff from the Checkly Hotel, an establishment down the road, would then deliver his food. “That’s one of the myths anyway,” says Levesque. “There are many myths around Homer.”
Just past Homer’s front lawn is Cliff Walk, a trail along the Prouts Neck coast. “Some of the greatest studios work both on the intellectual but also on the emotional systems,” says Wanda Corn, a professor emerita of art history at Stanford University. “Homer’s is just a piece of the true cross. This is the seascape that he looked out at from his windows—walk down the front lawn and you can identify the rock formations in his paintings.”