Winslow Homer first traveled to Maine in July 1874 to visit his brother Arthur and his new wife during their honeymoon at the Willows Hotel in Prout's Neck, on the southern coast overlooking Saco Bay. He went to the area periodically with his family during the following nine years and then moved from New York to Prout's Neck permanently in 1883, the year the present work was executed. Homer found the secluded area to be a refuge from his busy life in New York where machines progressively came to dictate human activity. In Prout's Neck, men and women confronted the powers of nature firsthand in a timeless struggle in their daily life and work. "Living at Prout's Neck Homer escaped the turmoil of the city, its complications, its disappointments, and its potentially problematic human relationships...Perhaps in contemplating the sea day in and day out he could forget himself and, to use Emerson's words, 'open his eyes to see things in a true light and in large relations.'" (F. Kelly, Winslow Homer, Washington, D.C., 1995, p. 313) Homer's masterful watercolor, Prout's Neck, is a reflection of this stark contrast and foreshadows the great theme of the relationship between man and nature that Homer would continue to address for the remainder of his career.
Previously, in the spring of 1881, Winslow Homer made his second visit abroad, spending two seasons in Tynemouth, England, a fishing village on the North Sea. It was during this time that the artist focused on drawings and watercolors capturing the surrounding sea and its inhabitants whose lives depended on the sea. Lloyd Goodrich writes that Homer's "scenes were no longer sunlit, the sky no longer clear but a moving spectacle of clouds, the sea no longer the quiet water of Gloucester harbor but a threatening or raging element...there was more envelopment by atmosphere; his color, while often dark, added a wide variety of grays, and a new depth and body; his technical skill increased; and his watercolors were filled with movement of wind and wave and cloud." (Winslow Homer, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1973, p. 35)
The dramatic coast of Prout's Neck proved to be a significant presence in Homer's paintings and a natural continuance of his work in Tynemouth. The present watercolor demonstrates Homer's strongly rendered drawing style and captures the artist's reverence for the ocean environment and atmosphere of life on the coast. The only evidence of human presence is the worn path that leads the viewer into the scene; gone are the fisherwomen struggling against nature that captured Homer's imagination in Tynemouth. Homer has pared the scene down to its most basic elements, instead choosing to concentrate on the sheer beauty and dramatic topography of the Maine coast.
Prout's Neck is a brilliant example of Homer's exploration of nature through the media of watercolor. The work retains delicately toned washes that typify the artist's best watercolors, enlivened with subtle, brilliant touches of russet and orange. The beautifully rendered hillside in the foreground is filled with varied washes of saturated blues and greens. With watercolor, Homer was able to convey the atmosphere of his seaside landscapes both on land and water, unifying the entire composition with a balance of openness in the sky and looser experimental use of watercolor in the foreground. Homer uses this application of watercolor as no other artist did at the time. He combined fluid, transparent washes and juxtaposed them with richer colors to create works of great beauty and peacefulness as well as a work showcasing his unique style and talent for color. "The finest Prout's Neck watercolors are characterized by less labored execution, a freer use of the white paper, and clearer, lighter colors..." (Winslow Homer Watercolors, p. 124) Prout's Neck embodies each of these hallmarks of the best works from the period.