For the majority of its existence, the Winslow Homer studio at Prouts Neck in Scarborough has stood silently against the sound of the Atlantic crashing against the jagged granite at the shore, and the murmurs of summer soirees from neighboring homes. Homer’s descendants lived there on and off for decades, and,of course, Homer, the 19th-century painter who brought so vividly to life the American landscape, painted there for the 25 years before his death in 1910. But mostly, it’s been quiet.
It’s still quiet, but filled with a different sort of energy now as the Portland Museum of Art has painstakingly restored the small, odd little building into a publicly accessible site since it purchased it from the Homer family in 2006. Since the studio opened to the public in September, it has seen 1,800 people pass through its doors — and the accompanying exhibit of 38 of Homer’s paintings in “Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine,” has attracted more than 17,000 patrons to the Portland Museum of Art. The New York Times, CBS Sunday Morning and Vanity Fair magazine have all touted the new exhibit, drawing in many more visitors from around the country.
The studio tour has been so successful, in fact, that all tours are booked through the end of the year, and are already starting to fill up for 2013. Just 30 people are allowed into the studio per day, Tuesday through Sunday, at $55 per person. The exhibit at the PMA, too, is limited access, with 60 allowed in per half-hour, and a $5 surcharge added to each $12 nonmember admission price.
“The opening of the Winslow Homer Studio [is] a pivotal moment in American art history. For the first time, visitors are able to experience the Studio as it was during Homer’s time and discover the actual location where he created his best-known paintings,” PMA director Mark H. C. Bessire said in a prepared statement. “The studio is truly a cultural treasure.”
The PMA spent six years and $2.8 million to painstakingly restore every floorboard, railing and windowpane in Homer’s compact little structure, from the wide, rustic veranda overlooking the shoreline, to the light-filled entry room. A handful of modern touches don’t impede the overall effect — a flat-screen TV on the second floor that shows a video about Homer’s time in Maine, for example, and tasteful lighting throughout — which is one of stepping into a late 19th-century time capsule.
Homer, who according to legend was a bit of a curmudgeon with a sarcastic tongue, clearly didn’t care for too many visitors aside from family; he preferred to work in solitude, even going so far as to put up a sign, on display today, telling would-be callers that there were snakes and rats infested in the house, which was not true. Ephemera from Homer’s 25 years at Prouts Neck are displayed throughout the studio, including his collection of natural history artifacts, the wicker day bed on which it’s rumored (but not proven) that he died, and his pipe and tobacco can.
One of the nicest things one can do when visiting, though, is to step out onto the veranda and watch the waves reach the granite cliffs — or to take a walk down the little pathway right to the shore to see it up close. There’s a reason the little peninsula has long been a summer community, and it’s easy to see where Homer got inspiration for his maritime paintings. The spray and foam of the ocean at Prouts Neck can be seen in countless paintings, as Homer walked along the cliffs and then returned to his studio to paint. He wasn’t a plein air painter; rather, he took in what he needed and then re-imagined it on the canvas. It’s a rare treat to see so clearly the link between an actual place and an artist’s works; Prouts Neck affords the visitor that chance.
For information, visit portlandmuseum.org. Tours can be reserved starting in January, by calling 775-6148.