Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 20, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of The Fenimore Art Museum and David Tatham. The essay was previously included in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Winslow Homer: Masterworks from the Adirondacks. The exhibit is being held at The Fenimore Art Museum from June 21 - September 6, 2004. The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-917334-29-9. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Ms. Christine Liggio with the New York State Historical Association for her courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Fenimore Art Museum through either this phone number or web address:
Winslow Homer and the Great Forest
by David Tatham
In June 1910, at age 74,Winslow Homer made the last of his journeys to the Adirondacks. Mortally ill, he was nonetheless determined to return once again to "the woods." By this he meant the North Woods Club, deep in the forest in the Essex County township of Minerva. He had first traveled to this site forty years earlier when it was little more than a boarding house on a farm cleared from the wilderness. He had returned many times, always to fish and often to paint. In the late 1880s, soon after the club had purchased the farm and its property -- five thousand acres of woodland with seven lakes and ponds -- it welcomed Homer to membership. The boarding house became a clubhouse, a dining hall was added, and in time a few members built cottages nearby. Still, the site remained a clearing in wilderness. 
Homer's final visit lasted ten days. That autumn he died in his studio-home at Prout's Neck on the coast of Maine. Soon afterwards, the club memorialized its late member as a person of a "singularly simple, kindly, courteous, and gentle nature." It is interesting that this characterization should be at such odds with the reputation shaped by journalists and biographers in the years following his death. In their view the great artist had been the unsociable "hermit" of Prout's Neck and something of a curmudgeon. They constructed this image in good part from reports of strangers rebuffed in attempts to interview him or to intrude otherwise on his privacy, especially in his years of declining health. 
The more accurate assessment of the man was surely the one made at the North Woods Club. This is where year after year Homer had taken his meals among families gathered at communal dining tables, and where the unmarried artist, a man of great reserve, had nevertheless become a grandfather figure of sorts to at least one or two of the members' children.  The locals -- especially the club's guides and superintendent -- held him in high esteem.
Homer's reasons for returning so often to Minerva were as much social as they were piscatory and professional. As was always true in his case, a warmly congenial social routine coupled with a visually stimulating environment brought forth sustained periods of high quality work. This had been so during his year and a half in a fishing village in England, his summers at Houghton Farm near West Point, his winters in Florida, his years at Prout's Neck (where he lived quietly but was scarcely a recluse), and of course in the Adirondacks.
From his Adirondack sojourns came a handful of finely designed magazine illustrations, at least fourteen oil paintings, and about a hundred watercolors, including many of great brilliance. He created this impressive corpus in just two localities. One was the clearing at Minerva; the other, the village of Keene Valley, about thirty air miles to the north in the High Peaks area. These were the only places within the Adirondacks at which Homer spent significant time. He went to both locales in 1870, 1874, and 1877.
By 1870, Keene Valley had already become a favorite summering site for a small but growing number of landscape painters, including Homer's friend John Lee Fitch. Homer seems to have produced little if anything during his stay in the village that year, but he very likely caught some fine trout. In 1874, a photograph (Figure 1) shows him at the center of a group of artists arrayed on a rocky bank of the East Branch of the Ausable River. Among them is the painter Roswell Shurtleff, whom Homer had known in Boston in the 1850s and who had now settled near the village. Homer portrayed Shurtleff that year in The Angler (private collection), fishing at the edge of a cataract, perhaps on the East Branch. 
But if Homer produced relatively little in Keene Valley during his first visits, he more than made up for it in 1877 when he painted three major oils. One, In the Mountains (Brooklyn Museum of Art), depicts four women hiking on Mount Hopkins near the valley. Homer often painted women, but this is the sole instance of his doing so within the Adirondacks. Female models were scarce. (Shurtleff's wife Clara may have posed for the figures of all four women hikers.) Beyond that scarcity was the pervasive belief that paintings of life in the wilderness ought to depict sturdy local folk rather than fashionably attired female hikers. 
The reputation of the Adirondacks as a realm little touched by civilization, and a place essentially for hardy men, had gained widespread currency in 1869 from William Henry Harrison Murray's best selling Adventures in the Wilderness, a book Homer surely knew. Murray extolled the health-giving and spirit-enhancing virtues of a life in New York's northern woods. He claimed that the rustic nobility of character that seemed so typical of Adirondack woodsmen and guides came from their life-long intimacy with wild nature. His energetic prose left little doubt that visiting sportsmen and other outsiders would profit from association with men of this sort as well as with the great forest itself He said little about women, however, even though they constituted much of the region's resident population. Indeed, the widow Eunice Baker owned the boarding house that Homer frequented in Minerva, and for many years ran it with her daughters Juliette and Jennie.
Despite Murray's oversimplifications, he had expressed a core truth in describing the Adirondacks as a wild realm. Compared to such other tourist and sporting regions of the Northeast as the Catskills, the Berkshires, and the White Mountains, the great forest of northern New York was less accessible and largely undeveloped as a tourist haven. Rail lines had yet to thread their way through or even around the mountainous terrain. Paradoxically, Murray's celebration of the vast region's wildness instigated the building of more summer hotels and resorts. Yet even as the seasonal population increased, the belief in wilderness as the defining quality of the Adirondacks reverberated in the national consciousness. For fully a generation following his book's publication, Murray's vision continued to inform the paintings of many Adirondack artists, Homer included.
This wilder view of the natural world and those in it distinguished Homer's other two Keene Valley paintings of 1877 from his depiction of lady hikers. In The Two Guides (Figure 2), the clouds that scud through the notch tell of the invigorating freshness of mountain air. The older figure, who carries an Adirondack pack basket on his back, is the celebrated Keene Valley guide Orson "Old Mountain" Phelps.  The younger man, holding an axe and wearing a red double-breasted fireman's shirt, is his colleague Monroe Holt. Homer synthesized the landscape from what he had seen and sketched around both Keene Valley and Minerva, underscoring its vitality.
Camp Fire (Figure 3) acts as a counterpart to The Two Guides.  Night succeeds day, sportsmen replace woodsmen, and a contemplative mood supplants one of activity. A creel and other fishing gear suggest how the day was spent. Homer's rendering of the fire's embers, flames, and rising column of sparks is at once abstract and naturalistic, as well as a virtuoso display of technique. This pair of oils offered pictorial confirmation of much of what Murray had said about the region and its locals.
He undertook nothing quite so ambitious during his three visits to Minerva in the 1870s but here, too, he sustained a vision of the Adirondacks as wilderness. At the clearing in that decade and later he depicted trappers, loggers, woodsmen, local hunters, and guides but (with rare exceptions) he found no place in his work for fellow boarders or members of the North Woods Club. For three decades he included guide boats and canoes in his compositions, but showed nothing of the wagons that journeyed back and forth from the clearing to the village, nine miles distant. He incorporated lean-tos and campsites, but never the clubhouse, dining hall, farm buildings, boathouses, and docks that enabled him to spend weeks on end in comfort and good cheer with plenty to do. We see deer, but none of the horses and cows that grazed in the clearing's pasture.
The same adherence to wilderness imagery informs the five wood-engraved illustrations of Adirondack life that he drew between 1870 and 1874 for Harper's Weekly and Every Saturday. Beginning around 1870, a few graphic artists had skillfully depicted the grandeur of the region's mountain landscapes for these popular journals, while comic-spirited artists caricatured the growing population of tourists.  Homer alone illustrated the region's local life, developing each illustration in his New York studio from drawings made at Minerva. In his finely composed Camping Out in the Adirondack Mountains (Figure 4), two sportsmen (or a sportsman and his guide) rest after a successful day's casting for trout. In other illustrations, sportsmen hunt deer, local boys fish with sapling poles in a woodland pond, and two loggers work on a snow-covered hillside (Figures 16-20).
After 1877, he remained away from the Adirondacks until 1889. He spent the intervening summers in the Hudson Valley, on an island in Gloucester Harbor, in the village of Cullercoats facing England's North Sea, and at Prout's Neck getting to know his surroundings intimately. When he returned to northern New York in 1889, he went only to Minerva. Perhaps the growing number of artists who now spent the summer in Keene Valley made him stay away from that locale, for by the late 1880s he had little time anywhere for village life or colleague painters. But his return to Minerva recharged his energies. In 1889, during two visits totalling sixteen weeks, he painted more than forty watercolors, most of them as brilliant in concept as in execution. Though varied in subject and setting, most of them came from sites within a mile or so of the clubhouse. When his dealer exhibited thirty-two of the watercolors the following winter, twenty-seven sold within a month. Homer now had reason to return to Minerva regularly.
During his absence the clearing he knew so well had remained largely the same, but the Adirondacks as a whole had begun to change profoundly. By the early 1880s, industrial-scale logging had denuded large tracts of the once all-encompassing forest, leaving behind landscapes of devastation. Deer had become scarce. The trout population had fallen precipitously. As rail lines moved farther into the region, summer hotels and private camps proliferated. The region's wilderness status seemed in peril.
As a defense against logging and crowding, private organizations such as the North Woods Club formed to buy and preserve for their own uses large tracts of land. Wealthy individuals did the same. Clubs began to restock their waters with trout.  In 1888, the State of New York assembled a patchwork of tracts as the Adirondack Forest Preserve, meaning to protect land and water for public use. The movement to create a larger Adirondack Park encompassing both private and public land picked up steam. 
During his absence Homer had changed as well. He had left his studio and New York's art world to live in Maine. More importantly, his understanding of the workings of the natural world had undergone a transformation. In his paintings of the late 1860s and early 1870s nature had served very largely as a decorative backdrop -- freshly observed and finely rendered, but secondary to his figures. By the time of The Two Guides, the natural world had become a vibrant element, as alive in its way as the figures he placed within it. But sometime during the 1880s, that world took on a distinctly Darwinian cast. It became a place of constant struggle for survival. This more dynamic, at times dramatic, treatment of nature had appeared first in the early 1880s in his paintings of the stormy sea at Cullercoats, and then in a series of marine subjects which in the 1890s culminated in his oils of breakers crashing against rocks at Prout's Neck.
When he brought this comprehension of the natural world as a place of never-ending contests for survival to the Adirondacks, he expressed it in a variety of ways, subtle as well as dramatic. One way was to make figures secondary to their wilderness setting, as he did in several depictions of anglers who cast from boats in morning or evening light. In his watercolor of 1889, Casting, A Rise (Figure 5), the warm hues, rich washes, and complex construction of reflections on the lake's surface draw attention away from the angler and the sweep of his line. The primary subject becomes the deep surround of foliage, water, and almost tangible light. The small-scale, sketchily articulated sportsman remains a crucial detail, but this work is less an illustration of a moment in sport than a portrait of wilderness enveloping all within it.
Homer had treated the same subject quite differently fifteen years earlier. In Eliphilet Terry (Figure 6), the angler (with his dog) dominates the image. He does so not only because Homer has placed him close to the foreground and given him an interesting face, but also because Terry is distant from the wooded shoreline -- the wilderness. Terry was himself an artist (though one of only modest reputation) and an avid sport fisherman. He had boarded at the widow Baker's since the early 1860s.  Homer may have given Terry such prominence because he was portraying a friend, but he did essentially the same thing when that summer he used a guide (Rufus Wallace) as a model. 
Homer depicted guides often. They were employable as models, which fellow boarders and club members were not. They willingly took and held the poses he specified. More crucially, they seemed an intrinsic part of the wilderness. Homer found no such unity of figure and place when on rare occasions he depicted properly outfitted sportsmen, as in his portrait of Terry and in his masterful etching, Fly Fishing, Saranac Lake (Figure 7). Despite that print's title, the locale is undoubtedly at the North Woods Club. The reference to well-known Saranac Lake was very likely a stratagem by Homer or his dealer to sell the print.
Rufus Wallace appears in Homer's work as early as 1870 and as late as 1894. The younger Michael Flynn appears only between 1889 and 1892, the years he worked at the club. Flynn is the quietly watchful guide in The Boatman (1891, Figure 8). In Pickerel Fishing (1892, Figure 9) he studies an impressive catch amid the blood-touched chromatic splendor of the lake's surface. Wallace may have posed for the oil sketch Adirondack Guide (Figure 10). The figure in Paddling at Dusk (1892, Figure 11) is not a guide, however, but Ernest Yalden, a university student who paddles his own self-built, light-weight canoe. The son of club members,Yalden recalled many years later that the effect of light reflecting from his paddles especially interested Homer. 
The full force of Homer's tougher view of nature came in 1891 when he took deer hunting as the subject for two oils. Flynn posed for both. The powerful design, fine drawing, and bold realism of Huntsman and Dogs (Figure 12), completed in 1891, made it one of Homer's undoubted masterworks. Set against the waning color of late autumn and the rising form of Beaver Mountain, a young hunter rests for a moment. He carries a freshly skinned pelt on his shouldered rifle and a rack of antlers in his hand. Still excited from the chase and kill, his hounds leap and howl. An echo of death resounds in the decayed tree stumps and fallen leaves.
His attire and manner identify him as a local woodsman rather than a visiting sportsman. The distinction is essential to an understanding of the painting as a portrayal of struggle in nature altered by modern-day circumstances. This woodsman is a "pot hunter." He hunts to survive and to support his family. He does so, however, not as his predecessors in the great forest had done by consuming his prey, but instead by selling deerskin and antlers to buyers who service the tourist and manufacturing trades.
Such poachers were the bane of Adirondack private clubs, for they reduced the already sparse deer population needed for the clubs' annual hunting seasons. On the back of his watercolor, The Fallen Deer (1892, Figure 13), Homer wrote "just shot -- a miserable pot hunter;" reflecting the clubs' view of poachers. Yet the delicacy of his treatment of the subject, the richness of his color, and the elegance of his detailing transforms this scene of death into one also of refulgent life -- the life within a work of art.
Homer completed the second of the Adirondack oils he had begun in 1891, Hound and Hunter (Figure 14), the following year. It takes as its subject a late moment in deer hounding. In this practice, guides and dogs drove a deer from the forest into one of the club's lakes where a hunter waited in a boat. Hounds on shore and the hunter on water prevented the deer from reaching land. In time, the hunter rowed to the exhausted animal and killed it. Homer shows a guide attempting to fix his boat's painter to a dead deer's antlers to prevent it from sinking, while at the same time he tries to keep the hound from interfering. The great open space of Huntsman and Dogs here becomes a darkly overhung cove at lake's edge. In a composition of swirling ovals, the center of attention moves back and forth among heads alive and dead.
Even within the Adirondacks many people found deer hounding distasteful, unsporting, and worse. It is easy to wonder whether Homer may have meant his painting as a protest against this means of hunting, but his treatment of the subject is so rigorously objective and so free of editorializing emphases, that he seems to have accepted hounding as a fact of Adirondack life. Indeed, he participated in the hunt himself, though without success. (No deer arrived in his lake.) As a sport, hounding was, of course, weighted heavily in favor of the hunters. Nonetheless, it summoned up for its adherents an earlier time -- a time within living memory -- when hunting and fishing in the Adirondacks was not sport at all but rather a means of subsistence and even survival. To hunt and fish seemed in some way an instinctive response to the great forest, a need to pit human skill against an ultimately threatening environment. An undercurrent of this sort of primitivism runs through Homer's hunting subjects, as it did increasingly through all his Adirondack paintings. His "woods" were at once elemental, beautiful, and cruel.
In the last of his paintings from the region, Burnt Mountain (1902, Figure 15), wilderness life has become solely an expanse of forest. There is no human presence other than the painter's. Beaver Mountain rises above lower tree-filled slopes. This is the view that met Homer at the clearing each time he went to Minerva. With new growth giving part of its summit a lighter, post-fire color, the distant mountain seems timeless. But in the middle ground a teeming mass of treetops appears almost to move. This tension between stillness and motion, permanence and change, energized nearly all his work from the great forest. With greater eloquence than any of his contemporaries in the Adirondacks -- greater, perhaps than any other American artist anywhere -- Homer succeeded in conveying in paint this vitality of the natural world, not only in the Adirondacks, but everywhere that forests exist.
David Tatham is Professor if Fine Arts Emeritus at Syracuse University
1 For Homer's association with the North Woods Club, the dates of his visits to the region, and a list of his Adirondack works, see David Tatham, Winslow Homer in the Adirondacks (Syracuse University Press, 1996). The history of the clearing and club can be found in Leila Fosburgh Wilson, The North Woods Club, 1886-1996 (Minerva, N.Y, privately printed, 1996). For further discussion of Homer in the region, see Theodore Stebbens, Jr., "Winslow Homer: Time in the Adirondacks," in Patricia Junker and Sarah Burns, eds. Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler (New York and London: Thames and Hudson, 2002), 95-123.
2 North Woods Club minute book, entry for 27 October 1910.
3 In his late years, Homer was often brusque with dealers, collectors, critics, and others in the art world. Like his friends at the North Woods Club, however, his year-round neighbors at Prout's Neck attested to his typical cordiality and generosity. Lloyd Goodrich, Winslow Homer (New York: Macmillan, 1944), 189-201.
4 In the mid-1960s, Charles Kays, then Superintendent of the club, related to the present writer that an elder member of the club's Fosburgh family had recalled that as a boy he carried Homer's paint box when they trekked together to painting sites.
5 In the late 1860s Homer visited Lake George, but the identity of that region was then quite distinct from the Adirondacks.
6 In the late 1860s, Fitch was a boarder at the clearing in Minerva and was probably among those who recommended the place to Homer. In 1868 Fitch and Homer had painted together on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire's White Mountains.
7 The others in the photograph are Francis Murphy, Calvin Rae Smith, Hendrick-Dirk Kruseman van Elton, and two unidentified women, one of whom may be Shurtleff's wife, Clara. Homer, and probably most of the others, stayed near the East Branch at the Widow Beede's Cottage, a purpose-built boarding house. The Angler is reproduced in Patricia A. Junker, " Pictures for Anglers," in Junker and Burns, Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler, 43.
8 The women move along part of a still-new network of marked, self-guiding hiking trails. Their attire suggests that they are visitors to the region. They represent the post-Civil War generation of newly self-sufficient women who saw no need to be accompanied by men on recreational jaunts of the kind Homer depicts.
9 William H. H. Murray, Adventures in the Wilderness (Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1869). New edition, edited by William Verner, with an introduction by Warder Cadbury (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1970).
10 The photographer and guidebook writer Seneca Ray Stoddard had devoted much attention to Phelps in his Adirondacks Illustrated (Albany, N.Y.: the author, 1874). In 1876, Charles Dudley Warner made Phelps the subject of an article, "A Character Study," in the May number of the Atlantic Monthly, later included as a chapter in Warner's In the Wilderness (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1878).
11 Although Homer dated this painting "1880," a report in the New York Tribune for Oct. 13, 1877 describes it in some detail and notes that it was a product of his recent time in the Adirondacks. He may have added finishing touches in 1880 or given it that date to make it eligible in that year for group exhibitions limited to new work.
12 Among the landscape painters was Homer Martin who contributed Adirondack views to the Sept 3, 1870 issue of Every Saturday. For comic illustrations, see Edward Comstock, Jr., "Satire in the Sticks: Humorous Wood Engravings of the Adirondacks," in David Tatham, ed, Prints and Printmakers if New York State 1825-1940 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 163-182. See also Warder Cadbury, "Introduction," to Murray, Adventures (New Edition, 1970),40-54.
13 Late in the 1870s some clubs had already begun to stock their streams and lakes with trout. I thank Edward Comstock, Jr. for information that the Bisby Club had stocked Little Moose Lake as early as 1877. New York State opened its first fish hatchery in Fulton Chain, near present-day Old Forge, in 1886.
14 For a history of the State of New York's establishment of the Adirondack Park, see Frank Graham, The Adirondack Park: A Political History (New York: Knopf, 1978).
15 Like Fitch (see note 7), Terry probably recommended the Minerva boarding house to Homer.
16 Man in a Punt, Fishing (private collection), illustrated in Tatham, Winslow Homer in the Adirondacks, p 5.
17 Yalden to Robert McDonald, 30 Sept. 1936. Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, N.Y.
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