The Woods and Water Colorist
Winslow Homer's wild northern scenes
by David Tatham
Winslow Homer made his first excursion to the Adirondacks in 1870, when he was thirty-four and already a leading figure among American artists of the younger generation; his last visit came in 1910, a few months before his death. In the course of those four decades, Homer journeyed to this region more than twenty times. From these visits came the oils, water-colors, prints and drawings—more than a hundred works in all—that have ever since brought his name instantly to mind for many people at the mention of art and the Adirondacks.
Homer was not the first artist to paint Adirondack subjects—far from it—indeed, he was something of a latecomer. Thomas Cole, the leader of the group of landscape painters known as the Hudson River School, found his way to Schroon Lake as early as the late 1830s. He sought—and found—a pure, wild, natural world, little touched by the hand of man. But by the 1860s the wilderness he had painted was well on its way to becoming a playground for ever-increasing numbers of outdoors-minded seasonal visitors. Boardinghouses and summer hotels sprang up in villages throughout the region. Artists became “regulars” during the tourist season. They came to draw and paint the scenic beauty of the Adirondacks; many came to fish also, and in time, so did Homer.
His decision to visit the Adirondacks in 1870 might have had something to do with good reports brought to him by other artists in New York who had already begun to make annual pilgrimages to the area. It may also have had something to do with the spell cast by William H. H. Murray’s best-selling book, Adventures in the Wilderness, which brought the “rush” to the Adirondacks in 1870. And it probably had at least as much to do with the promise of good sportfishing, since this was one of Homer’s real passions.
His initial season included a visit to Keene Valley (then Keene Flats) and to a rustic boardinghouse in a clearing deep in the forest west of Minerva. He returned to both places in 1874. The more remote of the two locations suited him best, and after 1874 he stayed only in Minerva. The settings of nearly all of his Adirondack works are within a few miles of that forest clearing with its nearby ponds and mountain views.
When Homer first visited the clearing in the 1870s, it was a working farm. The Reverend Thomas Baker, an active abolitionist, had begun planting and dairying in the 1850s. Following his death, his widow, Eunice, maintained the farm with the help of local men. She took in summer boarders who wanted to rusticate in a setting of scenic beauty with good fishing waters close at hand. Baker and her daughters, Jennie and Juliette, spent each winter with relatives in New York City, which gave them something in common with their summer boarders.
Two of Homer’s finest Adirondack oil paintings came from these boardinghouse years. His Trapper, Adirondacks was a product of his first season. It was a quietly revolutionary work. Most earlier painters of Adirondack subjects had included mountain scenery, but Homer chose instead to depict the flatness of a lake setting. Few earlier artists had included guides or other local men of the woods in their works except as figures waiting on visiting sportsmen. Homer painted a solitary trapper, investing him with the dignity of independence.
The Two Guides came from Homer’s visits of 1874 to both the clearing and Keene Valley. Beaver Mountain, as seen from the clearing, serves as a backdrop for two figures. These portraits are of the noted Keene Valley guides Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps and his younger colleague Monroe Holt. By transporting them in art from their home ground to a Minerva location, Homer preserved in one painting two things that characterized the Adirondack experience of many visitors—scenery and the larger-than-life personalities of the most famous of the region’s guides.
During the 1870s Homer also contributed drawings of Adirondack subjects to two widely circulated illustrated magazines, Harper’s Weekly and Every Saturday. These connected him to the region in the minds of many readers who had no opportunity to see his paintings. In the same decade, he began to use watercolor as a medium, though his use of it in the Adirondacks was at first cautious compared to what he would achieve in the next decade.
He may have returned to the Adirondacks later in the 1870s, but there is no certain evidence of it. His oil painting Campfire, from 1880, suggests that he visited in that summer, but he may have created this impressive scene of sportsmen before a campfire from drawings and studies made earlier.
Homer’s prolonged absence from the Adirondacks for most of the 1880s resulted from his preoccupation with new places and inspirations. He spent much of the summer of 1880 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, exploring the interactions of light and moisture in sunsets, fogs, mists and humidity. An eighteen-month stay in England occupied the summers of 1881 to 1882, and there he began to paint the natural world as an active, ever-changing force. On his return he moved his family residence from New York City to Prout’s Neck, on the coast of Maine. Prout’s Neck was already under development as a summer colony by Homer’s father and brothers. He joined in their efforts and, further, became a year-round resident of the place. With growing interest in the sea as a subject for his art, a refreshing summer climate, and a new affinity for saltwater fishing, he no longer needed to escape to the Adirondacks. But when he finally did return, all that he had learned in Gloucester, England, Maine and elsewhere in the intervening years added even greater substance to his work.
Homer was drawn back to the Adirondacks by a turn of events at the clearing. In 1886, a group of New York sportsmen organized the Adirondack Preserve Association (within a few years the organization would take on the new name of the North Woods Club), and a year later they purchased the old Baker farm property; the next season, operations began at the site. Some of the association members had once been summer boarders at the clearing, and it was perhaps through their good offices that Homer was elected to membership in 1888. In the following year he made two long visits to the site, the first of which extended from May 6 through July 13; the second from October 1 through November 24.
Homer had good reasons to spend so much time at the club in 1889. He saw old friends, including some who had stayed with him at the clearing more than a decade earlier, and he made new ones. A newly built kitchen and dining building in rustic style provided greater comfort and allowed more people to gather at the clearing than had been possible at the time of Homer’s first visits. Of the seventy-two people who registered at the club in 1889, sixteen were women. Like the summer residents at Prout’s Neck, they came from Homer’s social class and shared his interests.
But the chief reason that Homer spent eighteen weeks at the club in 1889 was almost certainly the fact that his now richly developed mastery of watercolor found an ideal subject in the scenery and sporting life of the Adirondacks. In England in the early 1880s he had begun to use the medium to depict the restless movement and surging power of the sea. In the mid-1880s, with his first visits to the Caribbean, he incorporated a new brilliance of light and color into his work. He soon had no equal as a virtuoso of watercolor technique. He never used his command of the medium for superficial effect, painting only those subjects that he knew well.
In 1889, Homer painted more than two dozen Adirondack watercolors that as a group rank among his very finest. Exhibited in New York during the winter of 1889-90, they brought forth enthusiastic critical praise. They included a number of his best-loved works. The subjects range from landscapes to intimate views of leaping trout, and include most of the cast of characters that would appear in succeeding seasons: deer, dogs, fish, guides, sportsmen and the vibrantly alive natural world of forest and lake.
Following this remarkable productive season, Homer returned to the North Woods Club every few years throughout the 1890s and then nearly annually throughout the first decade of the new century. (During some of the years in which he was absent from the Adirondacks, he traveled to a sporting club in Quebec.)
Among the masterworks of Homer’s North Woods Club years is The Blue Boat, from 1892. In it, two guides glide through the placid waters of an Adirondack lake. The stock of a rifle resting between them suggests their purpose— they are “on the trail.” With only a few brushstrokes Homer suggests pines and water plants, but the rich, deep colors of the landscape behind the boat come from soaking, blotting, scraping and other manipulations of the paper. The horizontal forms of the sky, land, boat and water enhance the painting’s quiet mood. The gaze of the younger guide carries the viewer’s interest into unseen parts of the landscape. Homer was so pleased with the outcome of this watercolor that he inscribed it with a fuller signature than usual: “Winslow Homer N.A. 1892.” (The “N.A.,” which he rarely used late in his career, identified him as an Academician of the National Academy of Design.) Under his signature he wrote, “This will do the business,” prophesying the quick sale of the work after its exhibition in his dealer’s gallery.
Several of Homer’s North Woods Club watercolors carry the viewer close to leaping fish. In Leaping Trout and similar paintings, the artist offers a trout’s-eye view of one or more fellow trout momentarily airborne. Homer’s remarkable visual memory counted for much in these works, and he also had an ample supply of freshly caught fish to paint from. (The rules of the North Woods Club required that all fish and game caught by any member be presented to the club’s kitchen to be shared with others.)
Nothing as fresh and convincing as these works had ever before appeared in watercolor in America. Perhaps none have since. Sport fishermen have always been drawn to them, but their appeal has been just as strong to persons who have never cast a line or had any interest in fish or fishing. The brilliance of Homer’s technique itself arrests the attention of many viewers. Some also find here and there evidence of the artist’s subtle humor. An empty bottle rests at the bottom of the stream in certain watercolors, offering a contrast of form with the trout, while also serving as a comment on the increasingly less-than-pure state of the Adirondack wilderness. In Mink Pond, a sun-fish and a frog each prepare to launch themselves at a pair of butterflies that flutter at the edge of the water equidistant between them, inviting visions of a collision.
Having begun in 1870 with a painting of a man of the woods—a trapper—Homer rarely included any other kind of person in his later Adirondack works. He spent most of his time at the club with his fellow sportsmen and their families, but when he put brush to paper, he nearly always painted local men who earned their living from the wilderness. He aimed for a consistency of subject in which seemingly rough-hewn figures matched their environment. Consequently, we have no record in his art of the women he knew so well at the club, and only a few depictions of sport fishermen—and these say more about forest, stream and lake than they do about the sporting life.
In all of this, by 1890 Homer was more interested in the power of nature as a subject than he was in human society. He had already achieved great things in painting American women—in the 1860s and 1870s he had been the most original and sensitive portrayer of the “new” American woman, placing her outside the domestic sphere as an independent person. In the 1870s, he had refined and elevated the subject of children in American art, divesting it of earlier Victorian sentimentality. And before this he had been the great painter of the Civil War. But by 1890, in the Adirondacks as well as in the Caribbean and on the coast of Maine, he used figures not as ends in themselves but rather as a means of commenting on the natural world.
In Old Friends, a watercolor from 1894, he depicts an old guide reaching out in kinship to an old tree—a giant that has lost much of its bark. Homer’s earlier Adirondack figures used the land to hunt, fish, log and trap, but this guide is simply part of it, and recognizes his oneness with nature.
After 1900, Homer returned to the Adirondacks, but he no longer painted them; by then he seems to have said all that he wanted to say about the region. Rather than work in these later years, he chose to rusticate and, it is fair to guess, contemplate the still-vibrant world or mountains and lakes, ledges and forest that surrounded him as it had ever since 1870.
Weakened by illness, he must have suspected that his trip in 1910 would be his last to the Adirondacks. He remained here for twelve days and then returned to the coast of Maine, where he died later in the year in his studio-home, his Adirondack watercolors close by.
Winslow Homer’s forty-year association with the North Country brought forth a dozen oil paintings, more than a hundred watercolors, several prints and a number of drawings, a truly remarkable bounty from just a few square miles of wilderness around a clearing in Minerva. No other place—not even Prout’s Neck—held his attention for so long a time, or produced a more satisfying collection of masterworks.
The kinship between nature and humanity that we see in Homer’s Old Friends has more than a little autobiography in it.