Artwork out of the Museum

Winslow Homer and Prouts Neck

On September 30 Keenan Boscoe ’19, along with his class AR347: Art and Maine (a humanities lab taught by Associate Professor of Art Tanya Sheehan)visited Winslow Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck, Maine. The course is focused on studying the work of Winslow Homer, the Wyeth family, and Marsden Hartley. The goal of the course is to deconstruct and understand the specific cultural lens through which each artist worked and to question the narrative of Maine that each artist developed in his artwork. One of the first field assignments was to compare and contrast experiencing Homer’s art with experiencing his studio, as well as to compare and contrast Homer’s cultural perception of Maine with each student’s own. The following is a short essay based on this assignment.

Winslow Homer’s studio—view from the yard

When engaging with great works of art, rarely does the relationship between artwork and audience leave the gallery. Though viewers may carry with them the lasting impact of a painting or photograph, the initial interaction with a work of art will almost always remain in the contained space of a museum. Although many curators strive to present their exhibitions in a manner that references the locations and atmospheres in which the work was made—through the use of wall color, frames, lighting, etc.—the placement of art in a gallery removes the art from the original context in which it was created. A watercolor created along the coast on a sunny summer day is changed when put behind glass and hung on a white wall. I am by no means condemning this decontextualization of art, for I understand that it is impossible to make art public and have it be conserved without the work done by museums, but there is something lost when a viewer’s sole interaction with art is within these confined spaces. The place in which an artwork was made is often integral to its identity—like Giverny’s gardens for Claude Monet’s landscapes. Experiencing these locales can provoke layers of observation and thought unique to those locations. That is why the course AR347: Art and Maine has been incredibly helpful to me: the course is designed to put art in context and to teach us how to look critically at that context. During our concentration on Winslow Homer, our trip to Prouts Neck was invaluable in the study of his concept of Maine.

Inside Homer’s home—with PMA Curator Andrew Eschelbacher

After viewing Homer’s sketches and paintings in both the Landay Teaching Gallery in Colby’s Museum of Art and the galleries of the Portland Museum of Art, our class was taken to Prouts Neck and Homer’s studio by PMA curator Dr. Andrew Eschelbacher. The morning we went was engulfed in the neutral light of an overcast sky, which dripped from reoccurring showers. The gray clouds made the subtle oranges and reds of the rocky coast blaze with intensity and the greens and yellows of algae and vegetation pop against their soaked background. It was overall a truly iconic “Homer” day, minus a raging nor’easter.

Our visit started with a tour of the studio building, which involved facts and trivia about Homer’s life. Although the surrounding landscape of Prouts Neck has been developed considerably since Homer first built upon it in 1883, the actual property around his studio has been kept relatively faithful to its historic origins. Research on what the grounds looked like during Homer’s time dictates how the grounds are landscaped, taking views, vegetation, and pathways into account. The same efforts to achieve authenticity are true for his studio, which, if you discount the modern amenities, has been kept in a condition similar to that of the time in which Homer worked there. Even small details such as scratches and playful notes he etched into the wood over one hundred years ago are still visible in the building. His actual painting room is quite dark, as no windows were installed along the northern walls so that outside visitors couldn’t peer in from the road. It was fascinating to learn firsthand how Homer had lived in Maine, but since our class was interested in his artwork more than his biography the coastal walk became our main focus.

(Left) Crashing waves on the coast of Prouts Neck; (right) Winslow Homer, Weatherbeaten, 1894. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 48 3/8 in. Portland Museum of Art, Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.1

As our group walked along the coastal paths outside Homer’s studio no single rock formation or viewing angle revealed itself as an identifiable painting. Instead, the atmosphere of the coast as a whole felt emblematic of Homer’s work, in contrast to what I had anticipated. This is what I have learned most from the field trips in our course—that artwork is oftentimes about capturing the essence of a location without perfect realism. Homer’s paintings do more than simply get an angle correct on a rock outcrop—he manages to imbue his work with a sense of the cold, salty air; the rhythmic, auditory crash of waves; the damp wetness of the coast. He captures the intangibles, the spirit of Prouts Neck, more than any explicit details. He captures the reality of the coast as he sees it, rather than how it may actually look.

View from the coastal path

As a studio art major, this was a fascinating revelation. For a long time, I have studied the work of masters and tried to piece together how one managed to achieve such greatness. I would go to museums and, gallery to gallery, study each brushstroke as if it were an objective truth of what the painter had seen. I then applied this very literal thinking to my own work, for better or worse, and as a result I have often struggled with thinking or working in the abstract. Yet when I was able to put Homer’s work in context, not only out of the museum but off the pedestal of “genius” that often surrounds great artists, I found myself thinking about his paintings differently. I was able to see improvisation, movement, and creativity that I hadn’t noticed before. The pressure to compare my ability to his was gone, and I felt wonder when I returned to the Portland Museum of Art. I was thinking about Homer in a fundamentally different way after visiting his studio and am excited to apply this new paradigm to my own creative process.

I won’t dare to claim it is necessary to see an artist’s studio to understand his or her work, but for me Prouts Neck served as a valuable aid to my understanding of the artistic process. The visit allowed me to find the evidence of Homer’s personality that is ingrained in his art and has given me the tools to envision artwork beyond the wall it’s hung on.