Winslow Homer’s camera donated to Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Posted March 14, 2014, at 1:08 p.m.
Last modified March 14, 2014, at 7:45 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — A late-19th century camera originally owned by artist Winslow Homer and used while he lived at Prout’s Neck has been donated to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The camera is the latest addition to the museum’s collection of archival materials and more than 100 photographs from Homer’s life that museum co-director Frank Goodyear believes may shed more light on the artist’s lesser-known interest in photography during the later years of his life, when he lived in the Prout’s Neck area of Scarborough.

The camera will be the centerpiece of a Winslow Homer exhibition planned for summer 2015.

The quarter-size, dry plate Mason & Swan camera was manufactured around 1880 in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Homer purchased it in 1882 while he lived in the fishing village of Cullercoats, according to Goodyear. The date “Aug. 15, 1882,” is inscribed on the camera, along with Homer’s initials.

The camera was donated by Neal Paulsen, a long-time resident of Scarborough, who acquired it from his grandfather, Weston H. Snow, in the 1950s. Snow acquired the camera from Winslow Homer’s nephew, Charles L. Homer, in exchange for electrical work.

The camera was notable at the time for its portability and ease of use and produced images that were approximately 3 inches by 4 inches.

From 1883 to his death in 1910, Homer lived on his family’s estate in Prout’s Neck. There he painted some of his most famous works. He also took photographs — nearly 100 of which are in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art collection — that Goodyear believes were made by the recently donated camera.

The photos of friends and family at the Homer family homes in Prout’s Neck have not been exhibited in the past 20 years, Goodyear said. The donation of the camera prompted the museum to plan the exhibition.

“We thought we would bring them out and begin to tell the story of Homer’s interest in and relationship to photography,” he said. “It’s a story that I think is still a little mysterious. We do not have all the answers when it comes to why Homer might have been interested in photography, and how he might have used these particular pictures.”

Goodyear said “the $100,000 question” is whether Homer may have based his paintings on the photographs.

“We want to bring forward some of the photographic treasures from Bowdoin’s collection, along with this camera, and start to think about these larger questions — how, if at all, it might have impacted his paintings,” Goodyear said. “It’s too early to say anything like ‘Homer worked from photographs.’ We cannot say that today, but by the time this show opens in the summer of 2015, maybe we will have some new insights on that question.”