A month after he suffered a stroke, the old man shot a bear. Usually he used a gun only on the woodchucks that molested his vegetable garden; he plugged them between the eyes. But this occasion was different. It meant he still had good sight and a steady hand. He made a sketch of the bear being carried out of the woods—more reassurance; he could still sketch. Two days later he went fishing. Ordinarily he did not record his catches, but this time, on the register of the North Woods Club in the Adirondacks, he noted a five-pound pike caught in a pond, and signed his name—Winslow Homer.
At 72, Homer was a short, bald, quizzical-appearing gentleman, often dressed in expensive but rumpled clothing, a long bow tie loosely knotted around an old-fashioned collar such as clergymen wore. A drooping mustache, heavy eyebrows and genial crow's-feet around his eyes gave him the appearance of a successfully retired confidence man. He could handle a canoe adeptly. He could sail (but did not like to) and until he was 66 he regularly made his way each summer to a wilderness cabin he had built on the headwaters of the Tourilli River in Canada, a canoe-and-trail trip that exhausted men half his years. He could use an ax for chopping wood or hewing timbers for a cabin. He was an excellent cook, the camp cook on fishing expeditions—nobody knows how many, but probably hundreds spread over half a century.
But above all Winslow Homer loved to fish. The man who is ranked with Thomas Eakins as one of the two great American painters left proof of his love of the sport in drawings, oils, and especially in watercolors, works such as Leaping Trout, in which the colors of the fish and of the lily pads gleam like gems, or the silent, windless world evoked by his magnificent Trout Fishing, Lake St. John, with a dark, treelined shore, a canoe highlighted above smooth, slate-gray water, and only the faint line of the long rolling cast providing a whisper of action.
Homer is better known for another kind of work—his paintings of the ocean, the Maine fishermen in The Fog Warning or The Herring Net, or the Negro drifting helplessly, menaced by storms and sharks, in The Gulf Stream. But along with these Homer left more than 80 sketches and paintings of fishing on streams and lakes; usually the subject was fly casting, an art at which he excelled. If Homer was the best painter of fish and fishermen, he was also the best fisherman among artists.
Not that angling was his only sport. He was one of the first artists, if not the first, to publish a drawing of American football, and he was among the earliest to depict ice skating when that craze (sparked by the sales of imported German skates for 25� a pair) swept the country in the 1850s. He pictured harness racing, duck shooting, mountain climbing, deer stalking, croquet, tobogganing, yacht racing and white-water canoeing with an eye seldom equaled for the unstudied action of sport. Degas was Homer's superior in depicting jockeys and racehorses, and Homer's best sports scenes were certainly no better than the finest of Eakins or George Bellows, but he differed from these other masters in the wide range of his sporting interests. His devotion to fishing persisted over decades of changing styles, changing conditions in his own life, changing tastes, changing interests.
Oddly enough, no one has ever written about Winslow Homer the fisherman. There are between 200 and 300 scholarly books and critical articles focusing on various aspects of his life and art, but not one on his fishing. Take Lake Tourilli, the subject of some of his finest watercolors. No one had ever journeyed there to do research until this article was conceived.
In view of the trouble getting to Tourilli, the lack of scholarly study is understandable. Heading north from New York you cross Connecticut on Route 91 and take a 100-mile detour, twisting and turning to the Canadian border, then drive up the Trans-Canada Highway into Quebec City and there find the right road (if you can) to the paper-mill town of St. Raymond, where you must ask directions, utilizing hand-waving and pidgin French, to a dirt road that you follow for 13 miles to a green barn. There you blow your horn three times. Three sisters, Helen, Georgina and Wilhelmina Van Felson, live in a house across the Ste. Anne River. Their late uncle, George Van Felson, was Homer's friend and fishing guide. When the sisters, ah in their 70s, hear the blasts of the horn—and they do not always—they cross the river in a dinghy and ferry pilgrims to the opposite shore. A five-day, 1,750-mile trip, much of it over narrow, potholed roads, was required to get to Homer's Quebec fishing grounds. And that was just the beginning.
Homer admired fish: he liked their colors, the shining silvers and reds, and loved the action they provided, their courage and fighting strength. But they were also to him a staple food. At Prout's Neck, Maine, where he had his studio on some family property, he fished almost daily. He caught flounder, blackfish and cunners (Tautogolabrus adspersus, bony but good-tasting). Wearing his black bow tie, a clean white shirt and an ordinary suit coat, he carried the tackle a few yards from his studio door and fished from the bank. The kitchen garden that he fiercely protected from woodchucks contained, along with carnations, heliotropes and wild flowers, the onions, radishes, potatoes and other such vegetables that supplemented his fish dinners. He baked potatoes, scrubbing them until the skins were thin and burying them in the ashes of his fireplace. He was quite a bottle man, spending no less than $10 a week for liquor, a lot of spirits for a solitary sort, considering that he ordinarily drank rum. Unless he used it to start fires on cold mornings, he must have had astounding drinking powers, for his Maine neighbors insisted that he was never seen drunk, or even tipsy.
There was not any regular order to Homer's painting, fishing, cooking or, for that matter, drinking. He sketched on fishing trips, and during the winter at Prout's Neck he worked his sketches into oils or water-colors. He painted until he became hungry, and then carefully prepared almost gourmet meals. Along with unfinished canvases, nets and other props and a birch-bark canoe, his studio contained a great deal of fishing tackle accumulated over half a century. His was not quite a solitary life—relatives lived nearby—but it was altogether independent of art circles. His activities were characterized by a sort of untidy elegance, or elegant untidiness.
Homer began to fish at the age of six in Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Mass., about a mile from Harvard. It was 1842 and his family had moved from Boston to a house on Massachusetts Avenue. Fresh Pond is now surrounded by a municipal park and the manicured grounds of a home for the aged, but then it was a brush-lined pool filled with small bass and perch. Homer and his two brothers used to get up early, dig earthworms in the garden, and hike across the fields, passing on the way the elm tree under which not long before George Washington took command of the Continental Army.