Winslow Homer’s paintings with waves crashing onto the rocky shore of Prouts Neck are among his most famous works and they were done just a twenty-minute drive from Portland, Maine. On the day we decided to go looking for Homer, the sky was clear of any clouds and the weather was beginning to hint of an early New England Fall. Within minutes of leaving the city, we were driving past small old farms with pumpkins in their fields. The tide was in, so the pools in the saltwater marshes were filled to the brim and our route gave us a refreshing transition into the quiet of Prouts Neck Peninsula in Scarborough, Maine.
Parking is an issue to know about before you go, but there are two easy solutions. Public paid parking is available at Ferry Beach for $15 a day in summer (free in the winter). This gives you a full day at the beach with bathrooms and showers nearby as well as the option of taking the mile-plus Cliff Walk around the perimeter of the peninsula. One helpful tip is to check the tide chart before you begin so you can best plan your day (Hiking Maine).
The other option is to book a stay at Black Point Inn or, as we chose, to make reservations for lunch at the Inn. Do not even think of parking anywhere along the road or at the end of Winslow Homer Road!! If you do, you are guaranteed an introduction to a Scarborough police officer.
Black Point Inn was built in 1878 and was the first of the beachfront hotels that would be constructed on land that had been an old farming community. The Inn’s website explains that it was originally named the Southgate House and is “the last remaining hotel on Prouts Neck, and a true historical Maine hotel.” The rest of the resorts were either destroyed by fire or torn down to make way for the largehomes that have been built in the private, gated community that makes up the rest of the peninsula.
Part of the inn’s good fortune came when it “was sold in 1923 to the Sprague family who increased its size and added guest cottages built for rail [road] barons. After Prohibition, Black Point Inn’s Oak Room became Prouts Neck’s first speak easy.”
As we approached, my eyes were immediately drawn to the inviting white Adirondack chairs on the sweeping lawn and the large, rounded, flower-decked porch. The soft grey, wood-shingled exterior doesn’t seem large enough to hold “Twenty-five spacious guestrooms and suites, all with private bath and individual heat and air conditioning. Each guest room offers its own distinct character with individual furnishings and interesting architectural detail.”
On clear days, light pours in through the inn’s many large sun-filled windows and dining on the porch is a delightful option, especially with the uninterrupted view of Saco Bay.
On stormy days, it is nice to dine inside in the Chart Room.
There is always the opportunity to sit by the welcoming fireplace in the lobby and enjoy the many architectural elements in the handsome pubic areas.
Our lunch of fish tacos and a Cubano sandwich, coleslaw and hand-cut fries was delicious. The sun was so bright during our visit that the sand bars and the deeper channels in Saco Bay were easy to see because of the varying shades of blue they created in the water.
After lunch, we took the Inn’s private path that leads to the Cliff Walk. [Note: You may want to change into sturdy walking shoes before starting this adventure.]
Where the path meets the shore, the Inn’s inviting beach is on the left, but the path to the right looked to be a more promising place to find Homer. Don had taken the walk many times before and he knew that I would be doing a lot of meandering on my mission today, so he headed back to the car to run an errand and promised to pick me up at the other end of the trail when I called.
After only moments on the trail I came upon the old Ocean Pump House, built in 1919. Just beyond it, I came to the Cliff Walk sign that warned of “Rough terrain, loose rock, erosion and dangerous conditions.” With an introduction like that, could Homer be far away?
Although the first portion of the path doesn’t show it, this terrain is definitely not child friendly nor is it good for anyone unstable on their feet. There are gates at both end of the walk and it is closed at dark and in bad weather.
I was following the Cliff Walk because I wanted to see the shoreline of Winslow Homer’s paintings. For years, as we have wandered through galleries in museums across the country, we have always been excited when we found one of his works. This was my chance to experience the landscape that captured his interest and served as such an inspiration.
[With regard to Winslow Homer’s life and work, I have used extensive material from Barbara Weinberg excellent essay on Homer, which is available on the Metropolitan Museum website.]
Winslow Homer was born in Boston in 1836 and raised in “rural Cambridge.” He became a printmaker, working first in Boston then moving to New York City in 1859. In October of 1861, he went to Virginia as “an artist-correspondent for the new illustrated journal Harper’s Weekly.” From his war-front vantage point, Homer sent illustrations of Civil War battles as well as scenes of the soldiers’ lives… images that would later become the subject of some of his major paintings (Weinberg)
After the war, Homer returned to New York and “the late 1860s and the 1870s were a time of artistic experimentation and prolific and varied output” (Weinberg). He began following the newly built railroads and ranging out to paint in rural areas in the Adirondacks of New York State and New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
In 1866 he traveled to France, “motivated probably by the chance to see two of his Civil War painting at the Exposition Universalle” (Weinberg) and spent almost a year in Paris and the French countryside…where I assume he ran into other artists who were pursuing their own techniques.
At this point he was expanding his work in oil paints and was also experimenting with watercolors. His watercolor paintings became popular and allowed him to give up work as a freelance illustrator. We had just seen two of his paintings from this period at the Portland Museum of Art (PMA). Both “An Open Window” (1872) and “Returning from the Spring” (1874) are wonderful examples that fit Barbara Weinberg’s description of his focus in the early 1870s on “women at leisure and children at play or simply preoccupation by their own concerns.”
Homer also returned to Virginia “at least once during the mid-1870s, apparently to observe and portray what had happened to the lives of former slaves during the first decade of Emancipation” (Weinberg). “Uncle Ned Returns Home” (1875) is another PMA painting that clearly relates to that period of travel.
As Homer began seeking more solitude, he went to England in 1881 where he settled in the North Sea village of Cullercoats. He stayed there for over a year and “became sensitive to the strenuous and courageous lives of its inhabitants, particularly the women, whom he depicted hauling and cleaning fish, mending nets, and most poignantly, standing at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their men.”
When he “returned to New York, both he and his art were greatly changed.” After spending the remaining winter in New York, he moved to his family’s home in Prouts Neck. “Except for vacation trips to the Adirondacks, Canada, Florida, and the Caribbean, where he produced dazzling watercolors, Homer lived at Prouts Neck until his death in 1910 (Weinberg).
A few years ago we took a trip to Bermuda and in our pre-trip research we learned of Homer’s love for the islands. At the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art in Hamilton we were even taken into the subterranean storage area and shown one of his watercolors.
Back in Prouts Neck, Homer enjoyed the privacy the peninsula provided and also the inspiration he drew from its rocky, sea-battered shore. He translated this coastline into “the great themes of his career: the struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile, transient human life to the timelessness of nature.” According to Weinberg, his works from the 1880s focus on “men [who] challenge the ocean’s power with their own strength and cunning or respond to the ocean’s overwhelming force in scenes of dramatic rescue.”
Weinberg also posits that by about 1890, he left these stories behind and began “to concentrate on the beauty, force, and drama of the sea itself.” This is exactly why I was here on the Cliff Walk. I wanted to explore the rocks for myself, to look for boats and to watch the crashing waves as I trod this narrow path that Homer would have traveled hundreds of times.
Shortly after coming through the entry gate I caught sight of the roofline of an old house, but it was not the shape I had in my mind for Homer’s studio. It turned out to be the Sprague house, the summer home of a well-known New England family and former owners of Black Point Inn.
There were no other hikers on the path, but I wasn’t alone. I could see a fisherman standing on the rocks, rod in hand, casting his line into the waves. I could also hear a mother duck calling out to her young.
Grasshoppers took wing in front of me, flying into the scrub along the trail.
The path changed and became a massive bed of rounded rocks that produced an unusual hollow clinking with each of my steps. There were two women along the shore who were enjoying the unique sounds the rocks made when the waves washed over them. I also came upon an old lobster trap, evidence of another form of fishing that goes on in this area.
Again the rock texture changed and looked promising…but these were not yet the Homer rocks I had in my mind.
By now, I had been walking for quite a while with glimpses of some homes, but the tall, dense brush ahead blocked any hint of what lay beyond. I was getting worried that I had passed the studio. This sighting of craggier rocks kept my hope alive that I would eventually catch sight of the studio.
At the next bend, a chipmunk dashed across the path and I spotted surf boards tucked behind some brush. This modern encroachment and all the new homes would have infuriated the reportedly irascible Homer. I remember reading an article that said he hated being disturbed by nosey people when he was painting so he would post “SNAKES…SNAKES…SNAKES!!!!!” signs around him when he was painting to keep them away.
Suddenly I saw Homer’s rocks and spray!!!
In my excitement I lost the path for a while and eagerly scrambled across jagged, deeply striated rock formations where I imaged Homer must have set up his easel. Even on this sunny, rather calm day, the waves broke, shooting plumes of stray over the rocks. I could only imagine what it would be like to be here in a real gale. Homer knew this stretch of land so well that he could translate its many moods into his paintings. As Weinberg writes, “in their dynamic compositions and richly textures passages, his late seascapes capture the look and feel (and even suggest the sound) of masses of onrushing and receding water.”
But the studio was still missing. I had no idea how far I had come or how much further the path went, but I was running out of hope. Again the terrain changed and I crossed another little bridge that had been built over a steep inlet. I was seeing more and more houses, and I feared that I was losing Homer.
After yet another curve, the path became promising again…
There it was!!!! I knew that roofline!!!!
Just around a bend…. THERE IT WAS!!!!
Here was Homer’s home and studio…almost at the end of the Cliff Walk trail.
By the time Winslow arrived in Prouts Neck in 1884, his family had already been spending summers in the area for about ten years and had built a home. Although Homer and his father had a “difficult relationship,” Winslow “created a home and studio out of the carriage house on the family’s property,” hiring the famous architect John Calvin Stevens to convert the structure into a 1,500-square-foot studio where he worked and lived until his death. From his second story balcony he had a constant view of the sea. This solitary refuge with its dramatic coastline must have been a perfect setting for the man who said: “The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks” (Graves).
It was time for me to meet up with Don again, so I continued down the path. In just a short distance I arrived at this tall pine and the other Cliff Walk’s other entry gate. Had I started my walk from this end would I have found the studio right away…but would I have seen so much or had such an exciting experience…probably not.
In the past, before this area became a gated compound, it was easier to see and tour the studio. If you wish to do that today, you must reserve a tour through the Portland Museum of Art. Visitors meet at the museum and are driven to Prouts Neck for the tour and returned to Portland.
Homer might have liked the gate at the end of his road, but I have a feeling he would have had strong feelings about the rest of the changes on Prouts Neck.
Black Point Inn. History. blackpointinn.com.
Cliff Walk at Prouts Neck (Scarborough, Maine). hikinginmaine.blog. August 1, 2020 update.
Graves, Anne. “Virtual Visit: Prouts Neck in Scarborough, Maine.” New England and Today Travel. newengland.com. May 31, 2019.
Weinberg, H. Barbara. “Winslow Homer.” Metropolitan Art Museum. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays. October 2004. Metmuseum.org.