By a more general consent, that distinction [being the worst picture in the exhibition] has been earned by Winslow Homer—of all men. He has one good marine with stormy waves dashing against rocks [Eastern Point], but its companion [West Point, Prout’s Neck], a buff colored sea with an inch of scarlet sunset between it and a buff sky, and some rocks pounded by spray that throws itself at one point into a stiff column, is hard in its lines, without air, disagreeable and cheap in color and altogether mournful.
— “Fine Arts: Society of American Artists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 31 Mar. 1901
Technically it is one of his freest performances, extremely varied in brushwork—bold and energetic in the rocks and broken water, fine and delicate in the spray. Though still direct painting, this is in no sense a one-sitting picture; close examination shows that it must have been worked on many times. Yet the effect is one of flowing force. He had succeeded in capturing in oil much of the spontaneity of his watercolors.
—Lloyd Goodrich, Winslow Homer (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1944)
In many respects, West Point, Prout’s Neck remains unique among Homer’s seascapes. Scaled to a more personal level, with relatively small rocks and spray that seems only to rise a few feet rather than tower high above the viewer, it has been seen as an abstracted vision, ‘a metaphor for mortality set against the spectacular rhythms of nature.’ Its wave has been read as an anthropomorphic stand-in for humanity . . . ‘a complex conflation of women, water, sexuality and salvation. . . .’ That [it] can easily bear the weight of such associations is testimony not only to its status as summation, but also to its forward-looking qualities. In it we see . . . the first clear signs of a new language of form and abstract design that Homer would use in his late masterpieces.
—Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. and Franklin Kelly, Winslow Homer (New Haven: Yale University Press and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1995)
If the folk saying “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight . . .” is true, then West Point, Prout’s Neck is a picture about joy. Homer painted the scene near his Maine studio, looking to the southwest across Saco Bay to Old Orchard Beach. Not only the place but the effect was a real one. Homer wrote of it to his dealer: “The picture is painted fifteen minutes after sunset—not one minute before—as up to that minute the clouds over the sun would have their edges lighted a brilliant glow of color—but now (in this picture) the sun has got beyond their immediate range & they are in shadow. The light is from the sky in this picture. You can see that it took many days of careful observation to get this, (with a high sea & the tide just right).” He made this specificity of moment clear by the emphasis he gave to the spume that crests in the foreground.
Homer was able to laugh with others about some aspects of his work. He later wrote to his patron Thomas B. Clarke that his brother Charles had referred to the spume as a “pillar of salt”—or the biblical Lot’s wife—lending credence to those scholars who see the breaking water as anthropomorphic.
Homer loved this picture. He asked a high price for it ($3,000 to the dealer, $2,400 to him—20% more than his other comparably scaled seascapes, the same as he had asked for the much more complex composition Undertow) and wrote to Clarke: “I consider it the best that I have painted.” The critics disagreed. When the picture was first seen in early 1901, several writers characterized the “blood-red glow in the sky” as “striking an aggressively raw note.” By the time Clark acquired the painting in 1941, it had been out of public view and unstudied for four decades.
—Marc Simpson, curator of Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History and curator of American art at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute