Winslow Homer lived here. Winslow Homer lived seemingly everywhere.
The great American landscape painter and illustrator set up his easel in Gloucester on several different occasions during the late 1800s, living on Cape Ann and painting the waterfront and seascape. A new exhibition at the Cape Ann Museum, “Homer at the Beach,” not only shows dozens of those paintings, but supporting photographs and historical documents as well.
Homer (1836–1910) also lived and painted in New York, in Maine, in the Adirondacks, Cuba, the Bahamas, Canada, at Key West, in England and in France. An exhibition like this could probably be mounted in any of those places, with different paintings but a similar “what Homer did when he lived here” focus.
Homer moved around. And his time spent on Cape Ann—three separate visits during one long decade—produced some of his quintessential paintings.
Organized hectically around the brief residencies that Homer kept in Gloucester and around the area—ranging from Long Branch, New Jersey to Maine—“Homer at the Beach” builds the case for Homer as an artist drawn to the beauty of the Atlantic shore. He was, but Homer captured some kind of beauty wherever he was.
The exhibition focuses on moments from Homer’s visits in 1868 to Manchester, where he painted Eagle Head near Singing Beach, and also to Gloucester in 1871, 1873 and most importantly in 1880. More than 50 paintings, collected from a startling variety of sources, along with accompanying photographs, magazine prints and other artists’s work, create a narrative of the reclusive painter’s life here. The most prolific, concentrated period happened in 1880.
More than a dozen inventive and beautifully realized watercolors mark that year. Homer lived alone, on Ten Pound Island, for three months in 1880. He painted voluminously, as he seemed to do everywhere. “Boating Boys in Gloucester”; “Five Boys at the Shore”; “Gloucester Schooners and Waterboat”; “The Old Sculpin”; these are just a few of the works created during this white-hot period. These paintings are collected toward the end of this detailed exhibition, creating a sense of critical mass built up over Homer’s time on Cape Ann.
Homer’s paintings suggest. They suggest leisure, or rest, or just plain inactivity along the water—boys lazing around, playing enigmatically in boats or on the rocks along the shore. Most of his subjects are faceless, or turned away from the artist. The scenes are usually about what the subjects are doing, not about them personally.
His techniques are fascinating. At times Homer mixes watercolors with sharp-edged graphite outlines and highlights; occasionally he works on colored or textured paper. Some of his 1880s watercolors include scraping the paint to create a blurry, atmospheric quality.
CAM’s “Homer at the Beach” works hard to create a narrative of the painter’s time on Cape Ann, and contextualize some of his settings. For some periods that approach works effectively, but for some periods the supporting documents—which include hats, shoes and clothing, and maps along with photos—overwhelm Homer’s originals. Too many categories, too much supporting information of questionable relevance.
But Homer’s work is here, painted beautifully with a depth of feeling. Homer loved his subjects, and painted with genuine affection no matter where he was. “Homer at the Beach” is one place that, like Homer, you can visit for a short while just to appreciate what you see.
Homer at the Beach” runs exclusively at the Cape Ann Museum through Dec. 1. Free with museum admission. A companion exhibition, opening Aug. 31 at the Harvard Art Museums, examines a earlier period of Homer’s busy life, when he documented the Civil War in illustrations and sketches at the battle lines. Visit www.capeannmuseum.org or call 978-283-0455.