Fig. 1: Winslow Homer, Evening, 1870, likely location: southerly view from near Ten Eyck DeWitt Bouwerie (former Paul farm), Oil, Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine. Photo courtesy of Reilly Rhodes.

Evening on the Flats: An Artist’s Sojourn

by Viola Opdahl with Gail Whistance


Fig. 2: ca.1890 View of Hurley Flats looking south from Ten Eyck DeWitt Bouwerie (former Paul farm). From the album of Maguerite Veeder Yates Parker, a descendant of the Hurley DeWitt family, courtesy of her grandaughter Ellen Messick. Photographer: William Cressy Vrooman.of Schenectady, NY.

As the late afternoon was wearing on, the lanky man pulls his brimmed hat lower on his brow and makes his way up the farm road. At the crest of a gentle rise, he sets up his easel and lays out his oil paints. This was his first visit to the Hurley Flats but he had heard about the place from fellow artists at the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City. It is 1870, and Winslow Homer, best known at this time for his wood engravings published in magazines of the day, is about to paint a picture he calls Evening. The visual scene before him appears peaceful, silent, and inert. A camouflage? Or what?  In reality, he is surrounded by sounds and activity as he surveys the field that he puts on canvas. Does the strident, uninterrupted, repetitious choral performance of thousands of katydids seem invasive and overwhelming to Homer, or does the enthusiastic choir add to a sense of kinship with the scene spread out before him? Are lightning bugs showing off their tiny sparks of light in the gathering twilight? Is he aware of the splash of a bullfrog’s leap into nearby Englishman’s Creek? Does his presence momentarily send into flight frightened deer, cottontail rabbits, and wild turkeys as well as creek denizens like long-legged herons, honking geese, or wet muskrats? We are left to wonder about much of the details of Homer’s travels and work because he kept no journals, diaries, or notes. Maybe he preferred to retain that aura of mystery.

As dusk was approaching, did Homer notice the shadow of the mountain growing larger as it slowly crept over the Flats until only a ribbon of sunlit ground remained. Later, that too, faded out as the sun slid lower and  lower behind Hurley Mountain. The blue cornflower, the Queen Anne’s lace, and the daisy were among the summer flowers that populated the roadside and uncultivated fields of the Flats, but Homer’s choice was a scattering of daisies for his painting. Did he believe them to be the best blend with a landscape no longer lit up by the sun that had already disappeared? Were the cornflowers too small to notice and the Queen Anne’s lace too big to fit?  Perhaps! But, the daisies proved to be the right size to blend into the landscape on his easel. Had daisies always been been special to him? What we do know is that Homer included daisies in several of his other Hurley paintings including Snap the Whip (1872, MMA) and In the Mowing (1874, Wichita Art Museum).

Homer’s painting Evening (Fig. 1) is readily associated with a similar southerly view in a c.1890 photograph (Fig. 2) of the Ten Eyck DeWitt farm (former Paul farm, now Row by Row Farm) on Hurley Mountain Road In  both images, the forested Hurley Mountain on the right slopes steeply down to the cleared fields. The outline of trees in the middle background and the fence rows compare well between the two. The general impression is that both Homer and the 1890’s photographer used the site as the inspiration for their creations. What looks like small pools of water in the photograph are segments of Englishman’s Creek as it angles its way through the landscape.

Fig. 3: View of Englishman’s Creek, Farm Hub complex, and Shawangunk Ridge looking south from near Wynkoop Road. Photo: Bruce Whistance 2019

Winslow Homer’s painting Evening came to light in a house once owned by Arthur Patch Homer and, after his death, sold to Margaret Christian in 1944. She discovered a clutch of unsigned and unstretched canvases in a neglected corner of the house and recognized the significance of the find. She contacted experts in the art field who determined, that the pictures were four of Homer’s early works in oil. They are now in the collection of  the Portland Museum of Art, Portland Maine. During the Civil War, Homer, using the wood engraving technique, had provided several journals of the time with many drawings of military life and events of that war. As the century moved into the postwar decade of the seventies the new medium of photography became popular for its relative speed, timeliness, and accuracy. During this transitional period, Homer turned from wood engraving to water color and oils as his main media. The theme of his very last wood engraving in 1875, A Family Record, was inspired by a setting in the interior of the Wynkoop House just down the road from where Evening was painted.

What was the condition of the long overlooked canvases when discovered in 1944? Some critics who made an initial study of Evening, one of the four canvases, felt they were seeing an impression of a shape like a woman’s skirt and part of a basket in the lower center of the painting. Perhaps a profusion of daisies was intended to conceal this older image of a woman who may have looked like the woman in Homer’s The Four-Leaf Clover also painted the 1870.

It was not a stretch for Homer author Reilly Rhodes to surmise that Evening is a Hurley subject. Less than a quarter mile down the road from the Ten Eyck DeWitt farm is the site of Homer’s Snap the Whip (1872) painting and just across the road rose a giant American chestnut which inspired his wood engraving Chestnutting (1870). During the early1870’s Homer chose several locations along Hurley Mountain Road as settings for his rural genre paintings. Do you think while selecting the sites, he ever looked up and, by chance, happened to witness a desperate chicken hawk trying to outfly a flock of angry crows in hot pursuit? Was it ever pointed out to Homer that Englishman’s Creek (see Fig. 3) forms a connection from farm to farm on the Flats just as the road does? Farm families along this stretch of road must have become accustomed to Homer and his sketchpad or easel and had, perhaps, offered a friendly hand to him. One thing that is known for sure is that in 1971, a century later, neighbors on the Flats extended helping hands and invitations to the newly arrived residents of the Wynkoop House.*

* The author Viola Opdahl and her husband Bob moved to the old Wynkoop farm on Wynkoop Road in 1971. Ms. Opdahl, a retired high school teacher, has observed the natural world from that vantage point for nearly  fifty years.