[I]t has strong points in its composition and good passages in its painting, but the falsity of the crimson-edged clouds, which do not stay in place and are lacking in atmosphere, destroy the harmony of the work and make it a painting that is not satisfactory. It is signed by a great painter, but it is one of his slips.
—William A. Coffin, “Society of American Artists: Pictures at the 19th Annual Exhibition,” The Sun (New York), 31 Mar. 1897
And the ‘Coming Storm,’ [Saco Bay], Lotos Club, New York City, is another phase of the troubled waters as distinctive as a real storm always is. How these fisher-folk must feel every turn of the wind, every piling of the clouds, every tumbling of the waves, knowing that their loved ones are at the mercy of these untamed monsters! Into their hearts must come ‘Peace, be still,’ of far off Galilee, with a new meaning.
—Lorinda Munson Bryant, American Pictures and Their Painters (New York: John Lane Co., 1917)
Like a brilliant sketch, such a work [Saco Bay] has the merit of carrying us close to the artist’s most spontaneous thoughts and handling of his medium. The full, fatty strokes of pigment and the uninhibited color have an integrity of expression that has rarely been equaled. When Sunset, Saco Bay was exhibited in 1897 . . . critics condemned it. . . . Critics and public alike were conditioned to accept only the golden sunsets of the Hudson River school or of Claude Lorrain, and by those standards Homer’s sunsets seemed intolerably garish. The intervention of Van Gogh, Matisse, and many years of time was required to demonstrate their truth and originality. At the moment of the first presentation of this work, Homer was decades ahead of his time.
—Philip C. Beam, Winslow Homer (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975)
In 1884 Homer moved permanently to Prout’s Neck, Maine; scenes of its coastline dominate his later work. He painted this view of Saco Bay from Checkley Point on the southwestern side of Prout’s Neck, using two local residents—depicted in the clothes of English fishermen’s wives—as models. This is one of the last of Homer’s works in which women appeared. In his late seascapes, the human figure was often absent entirely.
The exhibition of Saco Bay in the spring of 1897 at the Society of American Artists marked Homer’s return, following a nine-year absence, to exhibiting works in major public shows in New York City. Whereas the two other works presented by Homer in the show were widely acclaimed, Saco Bay was deemed a failure. One critic condemned the painting’s coloring as “cold and hard . . . with an unnatural strawberry sky,” and another wrote, “the loose execution . . . and the blatant magenta sky are entirely unworthy of the painter.” Yet such derision was not universal. Just a few months earlier, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Artsawarded Saco Bay a gold medal of honor at its annual show, and a critic for the Washington Postwrote that “the painting . . . is by far the masterpiece of the exhibition.” Homer himself felt it was one of his finer works, and he wrote of it in a letter to the collector Thomas B. Clarke: “Although I have painted on this up to 3 days of sending it out, I have had it on hand and observed and studied this particular point and picture for the past ten years. This will account for the cost price that I have put on it. It will not sell, but I have some others that will pay me, and make it possible for me to show a work of this merit, which I now call your attention to. P.S. This above, would seem that W. Homer has a great opinion of himself but it is the picture that I am talking about.”
When Saco Bay appeared at the inauguration of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in 1955, it was its first public showing in forty years.
—Susannah Maurer, graduate intern for Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History and member of the Class of 2006, Graduate Program in the History of Art co-sponsored by Williams College and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute