This essay examining the pragmatic attitudes of Winslow Homer is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Stutter in a Language of Your Own
“Artists should never look at pictures, but should stutter in a language of their own,” wrote Winslow Homer. I read this statement while on a trip to Maine. The placard stating it was surrounded by his salty stammering, which hung on the walls of a gallery in the Portland Museum of Art. Making a slow 360-degree turn, I took in the churning effect of wind, water and waves—a panorama that echoed the wrath of Neptune. The matter-of-fact settings brought a powerful rush. Then I came upon a thing of such quiet dignity, I couldn’t move.
The luminosity of “The Fisher Girl” compelled me to stay; to study the iridescence of the frothy waves and the gleaming unfurled wings of a gull in flight, both juxtaposed against the gray gloom of wind-swept sand and tossing sea. Grounding the scene were the girl’s earthy garments and sensible demeanor—her hair, gathered tightly into a bun; the net she carried, so old-fashioned as to be ornamental as it cascaded down one side of her dress; the wind worrying the edge of her shawl as she shielded her eyes from billowing foam; the slightest hint of a petticoat peeking from beneath the hem of her dress, its ruffles pinched in gathers just above her remarkably utilitarian shoes.
Leaving her behind, I was back in boats that pitched and rolled, fending off water that sprayed as it crashed ashore. I was living Homer’s point of view, which convinced me that he meant it when he said, “The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice.” The morning after I saw the exhibition, I trekked along the craggy shoreline of Prout’s Neck to his studio, which had just opened after being restored. As soon as the water came into view, I marveled at the chiaroscuro effect of the black rocks jutting into a glistening Saco Bay. Though intense sunlight created the opposite effect than when the fisher girl with her net flowing from her shoulder could have been walking along this lip of land drenched in fog, I could taste her reality as I picked my way along.
Navigating the meandering path of tamped dirt that had spilled over rocks was a bit of a challenge. I was lurching over the uneven terrain when a slender snake zigzagged across the trail near my foot and my heart skipped a beat. As I recoiled, the friend walking behind me assured me that none of the snakes in Maine are poisonous, but the sizzle that went through my nervous system stayed with me as we entered Homer’s domain. I laughed aloud when I spied the crude sign atop the fireplace mantle, as I knew I’d had a small taste of the life the artist had lived. “Snakes,” it declared in uneven strokes of black paint; “Snakes! Mice!”
I looked out the same window he would have peered through so many times, and felt a sense of awe at the raw beauty of the coastline. It would have been much less developed during his time so I could imagine how prevalent the reptiles and rodents would have been as he combed the shoreline for vistas to paint. Looking out from the second-story of the refuge where the panoramas he had studied splayed to the horizon line made the experience of being there so rich.
I wondered if he ever looked down toward that narrow, serpentine path and decided to remain settled in the chair beside the blazing fire, a few slow drags on his pipe convincing him to let the spray take the rocks without his scrutiny for a change. I doubted it given what a practical human being he was. Even when he described the fact that he was living a life he loved, he was quite down-to-earth: “That I am in the right place at present time is no doubt, as I have found something interesting to work at, in my own field and time and place, and material with which to do it.”
The novelist Henry James called Homer out for his pragmatic attitude, but in a positive way, as he felt the artist was being audacious by choosing the least pictorial scenery and civilization to paint only to make the art representing them highly pictorial. By being able to visit his studio, I saw so clearly how he had lived the last years of his life steeped in brine and fog, salt-spray and glinting seas, to the point he would have had to paint the life swirling atop the ocean’s surface. His premise that artists must stutter to find a language of their own is just as true for writers, and I left there determined to find the landscape that would turn my stuttering into something as worthy as his body of work.
Winslow Homer In Situ
Winslow Homer In Situ © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.