Homer by the Sea

On the beaches and rocky cliffs of Prouts Neck to hear the rumble-crash of waves and see the scenery that inspired Winslow Homer to paint his masterpieces.

In the wet wash of sand just across the roadway from the Black Point Inn, I find bits of crab and Belon oyster shells, sea glass and seaweed, and then something that I haven’t seen before: a decent portion of a clay smoking pipe—most of the bowl and part of the narrow stem are intact, and the word GLASGOW is in relief on one side.

Through a quick Internet search on my smartphone while sandpipers and terns skitter past, it doesn’t take long to find details. The small object may be a kind that was manufactured only through the 1890s. I instantly think of only one person: Winslow Homer.

Homer, the artist. The recluse by the sea. The man who spent the last decades of his life looking out onto ocean scenes like this, painting figures on beaches and boats, and the collision of waves against the rocky shore—simple scenes, but powerfully unforgettable.

The seaside enclave of Prouts Neck, some 1,500 acres on a peninsula jutting toward the ocean about 12 miles south of Portland, was a profound source of inspiration for the Boston-born artist. From 1883 until his death in 1910, Homer lived and painted here, in a studio overlooking the Cliff Walk that follows the perimeter of the rocky shorefront.

It’s along this rugged seaside where Homer did his best and most famous works. And that’s why we’re here.

Rainy Day PMA

Before getting to that rain-slicked beach, we arrive in the dim light of mid-morning showers at the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), and I keep telling everyone that the weather’s just fine. Graeme Kennedy, director of PR and marketing for the PMA, is standing in the museum’s airy atrium—one of the human figures adding to the visual scene of sweeping architectural lines and boxy openings that frame glimpses of art on other floors. Kennedy knows I’m here with Homer interests, and he joins me in dismissing any cares about the gray day. “Homer rarely painted a beautiful sunny day,” he says. “He painted on days just like this.”

Plus, this is the perfect weather for a museum visit, and it’s not difficult to find Homer in this place. The artist first began exhibiting with the Portland Society of Art (the precursor to the PMA) in the 1890s, and his works are on display in several different gallery rooms. It’s a new way of displaying the museum’s collections, Kennedy explains, by arranging artworks not by era or by artist or medium, but by subject or theme. So even if you’ve seen an artist or artwork before, you may see things freshly, or draw new meaning or connections.

Near paintings by Marguerite Zorach, Neil Welliver, and N. C. Wyeth, I notice Homer’s 1897 painting Wild Geese in Flight, a khaki- and cream-colored scene of geese in the sand dunes, including two lifeless and tumbled upside-down birds in the foreground. As an illustrator, he’d often depicted the Civil War, and this has the feel, almost, of a battle scene on the beach. Then there’s a smaller, quieter Homer painting of possibility and light; An Open Window (1872) is of a woman caring for potted flowers on a sill. From a distance I see, and practically hear, one of Homer’s most iconic paintings. The wave-crashing Weatherbeaten (1894) is centered on a wall in a sky-lit gallery room of Maine art. The captivating painting is a rage of water; it looks like it could splash seawater over us all. Several young women—high-school aged, probably—are sitting before the four-foot- wide canvas, on a long bench and on the floor with legs curled under them. When I get closer to the painting, I notice that on the carved wood frame is a metal plaque, and the title spelled out in two words: “Weather Beaten.” The students are considering the 123-year-old painting, talking about it in voices so low I can’t hear.

Such oceanfront depictions by Homer showed his view from Prouts Neck and Maine to the world. Let’s get there, I think, and soon we leave the museum in downtown Portland and drive south along Route One to Black Point Road in Scarborough, and follow it to the peninsula’s narrow neck lined with sandy beaches where the Black Point Inn has a vantage point, perched on a grassy hill since 1878. This is where we’ll stay for a couple of days, about a mile and a half from Homer’s studio, which the PMA owns and opens seasonally for tours.

The drive from Congress Street takes more than 30 minutes, but only because we stop for views—at Scarborough Beach State Park and to look across the fairways of the Prouts Neck Country Club. We’re in part of Maine’s most beachy territory. Higgins Beach is across the choppy surf to the north, and Old Orchard Beach is to the south. From the inn’s parking area, I can see the old-school wooden decks and changing rooms of the private Prouts Neck Beach Club just across Beach Road.

The fireplace is going when we walk into the wood-paneled lounge area at the Black Point Inn, and they’ve got hot tea and cookies out for guests. The lobby is nearly empty now, but the desk attendant lets me know that the live jazz in the inn’s pub, the Chart Room, will begin in a couple hours. “It’ll get pretty crowded then.”

She’s right. By cocktail hour, I hear music and a hum of conversation from our room upstairs, where there’s a wide, cushioned window seat facing west toward the ocean. We’ve already followed a footpath from the inn to make a first excursion on the famed Cliff Walk. The mist and rain continue, so I return with ocean-waved hair and other guests arrive to the pub damp and with rain jackets, too. But the vibe is upbeat.

The couple next to us is here for a family member’s eightieth birthday weekend, and say that several cousins flew in from Australia for the festivities. Besides hotel guests, many of the Neck’s summer residents who live in nearby “cottages” are filling the pub, greeting each other and talking of beach and golf plans. The inn, with both a formal dining room and a casual pub that opens to oceanfront decks, is obviously an important local gathering place. Prouts Neck has only the 25-room Black Point Inn now, compared to the 1800s building boom of seven inns when Homer was alive.

A Salty Stoic on the Rocks

I’m not sure Homer would have been too keen about the lively social scene at the inn. The artist is known to have promoted the image of “the hermit of Prouts Neck” as he worked in etchings, watercolors, and oils there. He didn’t want visitors at his studio when he was working, and it’s said that he would raise a flag when he was ready for his lunch order to be delivered from the Black Point Inn. As someone who’s always interested in seeing the studios of artists and writers—O’Keeffe’s ranch in New Mexico, Hemingway’s house in Key West, Faulkner’s place in Mississippi—I think these kinds of details add to the mystique.

When I talked with Kennedy at the museum, he suggested that the reclusive persona that Homer projected became the very trait that people would associate with Maine going forward, “the hardy, resolute personality, the salty stoic. All of that came from Homer.”

The next day warm sunshine finally works its way through the clouds, and we follow the Cliff Walk again. There are still some puddles and mud-soaked sections, but in rain or sun, this natural oceanside pathway is a treasure. While many other New England resort areas developed by allowing homeowners to build as close to the water’s edge as possible, which created barriers for anyone wanting to walk along the shoreline, the layout of Prouts Neck has included a public marginal way since the 1800s.

This time, I have a picnic along, and my sketchbook. We take our time and follow the path slowly, stopping wherever we like. We must have hit the perfect timing for the goldfinch migration, because I see the little yellow and black birds by the dozens in the shrubs along the way. Two men stand on rocks about 10 yards apart with fishing poles, and we watch them for only a few minutes, but see one man catch three striped bass, “stripers,” and the other reel in one. Just like Homer, we can see the ocean from so many perspectives. We come upon a bench with a plaque dedicated to a man whose name I don’t recognize, marked with the words, “He loved the path and the rocks.”

Cliff Walk Poetry, Pipe Dreams

The ocean roars here. I find a rock that’s jutting yards upward, and I clamber up to sit a while. I open my sketchbook on the flat surface, no wider than a couple of car seats. I draw a few lines, trying to sketch the angles of the striated, dark rocks at the water’s edge. It’s thrilling. In the sound of rushing water and air you can hear, distinctly, the smallest rocks tumbling over each other in the surf. It’s like the amplified sounds of gumballs falling through a machine.

Later I read my fast-jotted notes, and realize that this stretch of oceanfront inspired something almost poetic:

I sketch, we picnic. Goldfinches flurry.
The rumbling build-up of the tumbled rocks. Striper season, almost June.
At Ferry Beach Landing. Not a breath of air. Homer, we’ve come to find.
Cliff Walk is a gift. We can see what he saw. Wave action thunders and thumps, and he appreciated,

“the dignity of gathering fish from the sea.”

We’ve arranged to meet Graeme Kennedy from the museum at the former carriage house that was renovated to become Homer’s ocean-view studio. Architect John Calvin Stevens (1855-1940) directed the design changes, including an upper-floor “piazza,” a wide porch that flanks the small, boxy building. Stevens, by the way, was an accomplished painter himself, and he designed more than 350 buildings on the Portland peninsula and more than 1,000 in Maine.

The wooden structure’s details are what you notice—the elegant landing on the steps, the lines of the paneling. The building appears sturdy, handsome, and lasting. And you can get a glimpse of the man who lived here. To help him limit the interruptions of visitors, Homer painted on a sign that’s now displayed above the fireplace, “SNAKES! SNAKES! MICE!” And he scratched his name into the pane of one of the windows so clearly that it can still be easily read. The house is largely unfurnished now, but there are books and a Homer family photo album, and on the mantel… what’s that up there? Yes, it’s a pipe.

Now, I’m not saying that what I picked up on the beach on Prouts Neck is actually the famed American artist’s pipe. But I think of it all again: I’m standing there on the beach with the uncovered clay pipe in my hand on a chilly morning just before summer’s start. The remnant is a connection to another time and something to wonder about, of course. And I do just that when I look at such objects or paintings and oceans. In the best of ways and for as long as I can, I wonder.