That year his brother Charles, who had grown wealthy as a chemist for a varnish company, was injured when he wrecked his new Stanley Steamer, and Winslow himself was forced to admit that he could not get around as he had in the past. He gave the cabin in Canada to George Van Felson, along with a valued watercolor, Leaping Trout. He was 72 years old when one morning early in May 1908 the postman found him helpless beside his studio in Prout's Neck, unable to move or to speak. But his vitality after this stroke was amazing; in a month he insisted on going alone to the North Woods Club. He took an easier route, by rail to Montreal, and south through the Adirondacks. At the club he recorded, on June 25, that he had shot the bear, and two days later the register shows his return to fishing. Then he made a last visit to the Canadian cabin. Back at his studio in October he fished for smelt, cleaning and salting them and sending them to his sister-in-law with cooking instructions.
In December he went south to Homosassa again. Instead of taking his usual trip to the North Woods in the summer of 1909, his extraordinary last great burst of creative work began, as he finished some distinguished paintings, the somber Driftwood and the moody duck-shooting scene, Right and Left. But the following summer he was at his old fishing haunts for the last time before his death on Sept. 29, 1910.
The dates on Homer's paintings are not always indications of where they were painted, for sometimes years passed before he completed canvases in his studio from sketches made long before. There are hidden aspects to his work because of his dislike of notoriety. Homer's refusal to discuss anything with art critics was perhaps caused by a slight of some sort, a long-buried disappointment. "I care nothing for art," he wrote one critic. "I do not wish to see my name in print again." He once said that he would rather fish than paint.
He was not a recluse: ho had pleasant relationships with his brothers' families and with a few Maine neighbors. He liked to sell the property he owned there six hotels and 60 cottages were built on the land during his lifetime—because the sales brought in money that he used to live on during periods of concentrated painting. But he avoided the summer visitors, discouraged their company and was at ease only with the natives.
The lack of consistent relations with the art world added to the obscurity of his travels; he had no admiring Boswell to note each fish caught or canvas painted. The wide distribution of his paintings contributed even further to his obscurity. In the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, for instance, you can trace the travels of Casting the Fly, a watercolor purchased in 1894 by Judge John Lowell, who willed it to his son, who in turn willed it to his widow. On her death in 1940 it passed to her daughter, Countess of Berkeley, at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, England. Next the picture was in the possession of her son, Francis Lloyd, a student of St. Paul's School of Concord, N.H., and subsequently was owned by Mrs. Charles Henschel, with the final note in the archives reading "see Ruth Kerr, New York Social Register, 1959, p. 338." As another example, there are four Homer works named Adirondack Lake, one at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, one at the Fogg museum at Harvard, one at the University of Washington in Seattle, and a fourth in a private collection. There are two watercolors of Mink Pond at the North Woods Club—The Mink Pond at the Fogg, and Mink Lake, Adirondacks at The Cleveland Museum of Art. There is an Ouananiche Fishing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and another by the same name in a private collection. There is Netting the Fish, at the Art Institute of Chicago, The North Woods at a gallery in Manchester, N.H., Fish and Butterflies at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., Fisherman's Day at the Freer Gallery in Washington. To see all Homer's fishing works would require travels almost as extensive as those; of the painter. A few have been widely reproduced, but not more than a dozen are truly well known.
Adding to the obscurity of Homer's travels is the tact that many of the landmarks of his time are gone. A road now leads into the Tourilli River country, but Homer's cabin, a possible tourist attraction, was burned recently by the provincial government. It was considered a hazard, having fallen into decay: the roof was collapsing, plants grew through the floor, some of the logs were rotten. Soon after its destruction, the original clubhouse of the Tourilli Club nearby was also burned, thereby wiping out a bit more of Winslow Homer's past. The North Woods Club has preserved Terry's cottage where Homer lived, and his studio in Prout's Neck is still intact, but the North Woods Club is limited to members and guests, and the Prout's Neck studio, informally maintained, has yet to be taken over by the state or Federal Government. It is a fragile structure and should be fireproofed at once; a fire on a windy winter night would wipe out the most impressive historical monument to Winslow Homer that is still standing.
Following Homer's footsteps and studying his paintings leaves one wondering at his solitary devotion to his subject, and at his carelessness in preserving the records of work that he must have known was great. Why was he so offhanded? The artists he had known at the University Tower went on to careers that made them a part of the social life of their time. But Winslow Homer settled unobtrusively on the Maine coast, cooked his own meals, did his own housework, washed his own clothes and lived as simply as the fishermen who were his neighbors. After he was recognized as one of the greatest American artists, his life remained unchanged. In old age, when his work was beginning to be regarded with awe, Homer continued in the same routine, merely arranging to have someone stop by every day to make sure that he was not dead. The style and subjects of his painting changed, from those sunbonneted girls that Henry James objected to in his early years to the awesome storms near the end, but fish and fishing remained a constant wherever he was and whatever else he worked on.
Fishing was his link to the common life, a constant subject with ever-changing elements of skill and chance, a practical excuse to be outdoors: it was an end in itself, a world of vivid color, an aspect of nature at the opposite extreme from the winter storms, a side of nature that was delicate, jeweled and gleaming with light. The noted Homer critic Philip Beam has observed that many great artists have pictured fishermen and fish, "each capturing some significant detail of aquatic life, but none showing more understanding, observation and skill than Homer." Homer was as sensitive to the nuances of art as the most erudite of his contemporaries, but unlike them he appreciated the values of the common life hidden under its simple exteriors. James Fosburgh, the manager of the North Woods Club, wrote of him: "The hunters and fishermen who populate his pictures were engaged in these activities in order to provide themselves with enough to eat. Their very lives depended on their skill. This Homer understood. He shared their lives." It was a sharing that vitalized the country's cultural life.