Daniel E. O’Leary will return triumphantly to the Portland Museum of Art on Friday to talk about the “profound and beautiful impact” of Maine on Winslow Homer over the 26 years the artist lived here, empowering him to grasp his full potential and become one of America’s greatest artists.
O’Leary, the museum’s former director, led the museum’s effort to purchase Homer’s studio at Prouts Neck in Scarborough. He left the museum in 2006 with unfinished business, before the restoration of the studio was complete. His lecture on Friday represents several years of research and the fulfillment of one of his scholarship goals to put into perspective the importance of the studio and to create context for Homer’s life in Maine.
His talk, “Winslow Homer’s Life on the Coast of Maine: Recent Discoveries,” begins at 6 p.m. Friday in the museum auditorium.
“It’s a celebration of the ways Maine made Winslow Homer a great artist,” O’Leary said, offering a preview of his talk. “It’s about how Homer found the thing that transformed him from being a talented artist into a great artist. He was a remarkably talented person, but he lacked a good vision. Maine gave him his vision.”
O’Leary, who lives in Scarborough just a few miles from the Homer studio, called the story of Homer coming to Maine “the greatest success story in the history of American art.” He will talk about the paintings Homer made at Prouts Neck, the physical alterations he made to the studio to accommodate his vision, as well as the efforts of the museum to restore the studio.
O’Leary’s research breaks down Homer’s productivity in Prouts Neck painting by painting, year by year and by medium, from his arrival in 1883 until his death in the studio in 1910. Boston-born and age 47 at the time, Homer arrived in Maine after having spent the previous two years in England, mostly in the village of Cullercoats.
His home and studio began as a carriage house on his brother Charles’ compound, the buildings on which were designed by John Calvin Stevens. When Homer committed to living in Maine, he arranged to move the carriage house about 200 feet to the east, near the highest point of land on the property, to give him a better view of the ocean, which was about 75 feet away. He also added a grand piazza on the ocean side, giving him a balcony from which to paint.
Homer painted 11 watercolors his first year here, and eight are images of High Cliff, the prominent feature of land in the area. His commitment to watercolors continued from his days in England, where he worked almost exclusively with watercolors. The next year, in 1884, he turned his attention to large-scale oil paintings of the ocean, which became possible for him to tackle because of the physical changes that he made to the second floor of his studio.
Over the next few years, he painted several important oils: “The Life Line,” “The Fog Warning,” “The Herring Net” and “Eight Bells,” all painted in the newly renovated studio, all epic in content and execution. All became oceanscape masterpieces, demonstrating his ability to realistically and dramatically capture the movement of water and waves crashing on the rocks. “The purpose of the studio was to help him become an epic painter with a new level of ambition and epic subject matter,” O’Leary said.
Mission accomplished – except three of the four paintings didn’t sell. They remained in his studio, a daily reminder of his disappointment. After spending three years perfecting painting with oils, he abandoned the medium for another three years. From 1887 to 1889, he painted with watercolors, very likely to satisfy the marketplace, specializing in fishing paintings for sportsmen. Homer’s evolution as a painter during that period was profound, O’Leary asserts. It was during that time that he became a virtuosic watercolor painter, as he mastered rendering the sky and the light in natural tones that rang true.
By then, six years into his residency in Maine, Homer had mastered painting rocks, water and sky, elements central to any successful nature painting from Maine, in watercolors and oils. From that moment, human subjects slowly began disappearing from his paintings altogether, and Homer concentrated on the natural elements that surrounded him. In the years that followed, he made two of his most famous paintings, “Foxhunt” in 1893 and “Weatherbeaten,” the most notable Homer oil in the PMA collection, in 1895.
In his lecture, O’Leary will show precisely where Homer made his paintings, what he saw and how he constructed them from a painterly perspective. He also will make the point that, as famous as Homer is now, success did not come easily. O’Leary will show a photograph of Homer at the Prouts Neck studio with four paintings in view, three hanging on the wall behind him and one on the easel. Today, the value of those paintings is about $300 million, O’Leary said. All told, based on today’s prices, Homer created between $3 billion and $4 billion worth of art in and around the studio, O’Leary said.
“That’s why we restored it,” he said. “I think that studio represents the greatest story in American art. Without the studio, Homer would be remembered as a talented minor artist instead of a master. Moving to Maine was the best thing and the smartest thing he ever did.”
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Portland Museum of Art auditorium
ADMISSION: $8; free for members
INFO: (207) 775-6148 or portlandmuseum.org