A Light on the Sea
Homer moved to Maine during the summer of 1883, settling on Prout’s Neck, a rocky peninsula near Portland with views of Saco Bay and the Atlantic. There his brother Charles built the Ark, a large house at which the entire family could gather in the summers. The following year, Homer had the carriage house converted into a studio; a painting porch was constructed to provide him with an open-air workspace and uninterrupted views of the sea. Completed during the summer of 1884, this studio became the artist’s permanent home. In the summer of 1890, a larger painting room was added to the back of the building. It was there that he completed his major oils, often working from sketches, chalk drawings, and watercolors.
Living alone in his clapboard studio at Prout’s Neck, Homer spent much of his time watching the sea, observing the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic changes of light, weather, and atmosphere. In a letter to his friend John Beatty, he described his working method: “I work hard every afternoon from 4:30 to 4:40—that being the limit of the light that I represent.” In Maine he found the privacy, emotional tranquility, and patience necessary to really concentrate on his art.
Many of the artist’s first Prout’s Neck watercolors explore the varied nature of the surf along the shore. The portability of his drawing and watercolor materials allowed him to seek out locations where the rocky shelves were bombarded by incoming waves. There is great variety in technique and coloration among these works; just as each storm, sunset, or wave is unique, so is each of Homer’s investigations. In its near abstraction and reliance on subtle color gradations, Prout's Neck, Evening suggests that Homer may have looked closely at both Japanese painting and the inking techniques used to produce 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints.
When an unusually large school of herring entered the waters off Prout’s Neck in the summer of 1884, fishing craft from up and down the New England coast turned the area into a hotbed of activity. Homer hired someone to row him out to sea in order to make sketches of the fishermen at work. The Herring Net signaled the beginning of a highly productive period in Homer’s work in oil. Critics were quick to see in it the grandeur and stability of Italian Renaissance drawing combined with a new willingness to reckon with the concepts of life and death, and the shock and awe of nature.
With his experience in Prout’s Neck in the 1880s and 1890s, the artist developed distinct roles for different media. Oil painting was now reserved for epic concepts and posterity, while watercolor was deployed for experimentation and on-the-spot observation as well as for quick sales.
Winslow Homer. Prout's Neck, Evening, c. 1894. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
Winslow Homer. The Herring Net, 1885. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.