Winslow Homer painted “Fox Hunt” in 1893 in his Prouts Neck studio in Scarborough.
The painting never came back to Maine until 2012, when it was on display at the Portland Museum of Art in “Weather-beaten: Winslow Homer and Maine.”
It’s not often that an art exhibit makes news, but last year’s Homer show did by breaking attendance records at the 131-year-old Portland institution.
The collection of 38 Winslow Homer paintings, watercolors and prints helped draw 79,000 people to the museum, 25,700 in December alone, narrowly beating the previous one-month record, set in 1997.
That crowd was drawn by simultaneous exhibitions for Andrew Wyeth and Alex Katz, but significantly, that was in August. The Homer crowds came in December, a month of heavy rainfall, snow, icy sidewalks and subfreezing temperatures. These art enthusiasts had to be dedicated for them to get through the doors.
What they got was a retrospective of an important American artist, whose imagination was fed and whose work was shaped by his life in Maine.
Homer came to Maine in 1875 for a visit and fell in love with Prouts Neck. He built a house there, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in his Prouts Neck studio in 1910.
That studio is now the property of the Portland Museum of Art, which opened it for tours this summer. (They will resume in April.)
Visitors got to see the spots on the rocky bluffs where Homer painted his scenes of clouds and surf, and then could go back to the museum and see the painting he created.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many Homer works together, and patrons gave the show high marks. The exhibit’s popularity probably contributed to the 1,700 new memberships.
This is all very good news for the museum, but it’s also good news for Portland and the state.
Maine’s arts community needs the Portland Museum of Art and other key institutions to be strong, building Maine’s reputation as a place to see good art, and building the audience for creative work in a wide variety of media.
The city and state benefit from another draw for tourists. It’s likely that the people who came for the Homer exhibit will want to come back, so this good news is something all of Maine can celebrate.