When Winslow Homer first arrived in Homosassa, Florida, to fish in the winter of 1904, he wrote to his brother Arthur, “Delicious climate here about as cool as our September – Fish the best in America as far as I can find.”
The artist will stick around to paint some of his most luminous watercolors: of fishing along the junglelike banks of the Homosassa River; black bass jumping out of the water; and the Shell Heap, an ancient mound of trash left by early Native Americans.
Homer has worked in watercolor overseas and in the North as well as many parts of Florida and the Bahamas where he traveled to escape the harsh Maine winters. Florida’s works had a fresh, light quality, quite different from the oil paintings for which the artist is still best known.
Homer, who died in 1910, made four trips to Florida between 1904 and 1909 and it was there that he would paint some of his last watercolors: often works where the dense jungle of the shoreline played against the sparkling waters.
But the trips to Homosassa, which is on Florida’s west coast two hours north of Sarasota and about an hour north of Tampa, seemed to have offered an opportunity not just to paint and fish, but to socialize. with other dedicated fishermen who had also discovered the small town. Among those believed to have fished the Homosassa River were former President Grover Cleveland and John Jacob Astor, the financier.
Although the medium of watercolor was not much appreciated in Homer’s early life, after 1873, when the American Society of Painters in Water Color held an international exhibition of works by American and Europeans, this has helped to give visibility to the medium.
Homer seems to have developed a particular fondness for watercolours, telling artist George Sheldon in a letter, “I always prefer a picture composed and painted outdoors. Going to college and bringing it home is only half fair. You get composition, but you lose freshness.
Sarah Burns, who collaborated with author Patricia Junker on the book “Winslow Homer Artist and Angler,” said of Homer’s letter to Sheldon: “It was one of the few occasions when Homer expressed his views on art, truth, and reality.”
Today, Homosassa is still a lure for anglers who come hoping to catch trout, red drum, and grouper among other types of fish. I drove the two and a half hours from Sarasota, past Tampa on long, flat highways that seemed surprisingly uncrowded for Florida.
Decades ago, Homosassa was the mecca of tarpon fly fishing, as sports journalist Monte Burke pointed out in “Lords of the Fly” his book on this period. Mr Burke, who has written about a variety of sports, wrote that some of the greatest tarpon anglers congregate there in season, including Thomas Mellon Evans Jr., son of the famous financier, who visited virtually every May hunting tarpon that migrated north. to Homosassa.
In fact, the largest tarpon ever recorded on a fly rod was landed in Homosassa by James Holland Jr., then just 25 years old, when he tagged a 202-pound, 8-ounce monster in 2001, wrote Mr. Burke. Today, there are still tarpon anglers catching the fish, but fewer tarpon visit Homoassa Bay than in the past.
The Homosassa River, approximately 8 miles long, flows west from the Homosassa Springs to the Gulf of Mexico and as it travels inland it changes from salt water to salt water. ‘pure water. Central small-town life is still centered around laid-back, laid-back hubs along the river, where a multitude of fishing boats stop. A popular place is MacRae’s, which includes a motel, restaurant, shop and a bustling wharf where one is likely to see manatees playing in the water or a fisherman returning with a day’s catch of grouper. Captain Erica Toney, who leads Manatee tours and moresays she frequently takes visitors on a pontoon boat for manatee tours on the river or to snorkel for scallops in the gulf when in season.
Pelicans do not hesitate to stroll along the quays where seasoned fishermen know how to slide a piece of fish along the birds’ long beaks without having their hands cut off. Herons strut comfortably, slipping through the water if a visitor gets too close.
Just off the marina is a sprawling two-story white house that once housed 14 rooms and was known as the Homosassa Inn; it is now the private residence of the MacRae family, owners of the motel and marina.
Although it is clearly visible from the wharf car park, it is not open to tourists. However, Kathy Macrae is the caretaker of the place and she invited me over and showed me a guest book where Winslow Homer was signed for a one week $18 stay by Helen Willard, then owner of the hostel. During one visit, Homer rented a buggy and cart to collect his luggage from the station. He also employed a boat and a guide to paddle as he sketched and fished along the river where the water was particularly clear. Ms MacRae, who is in her 60s, said her grandparents bought the building from Ms Willard in 1915.
The immensity of the fish sought by Homer impressed the great artist. In a letter to his dealer, Mr. Knoedler, he explained that in his watercolor of a jumping bass he had added a bottle into the water to help show the size of the fish. Today, on a boat ride along the Homosassa from Macrae to the Gulf, one feels the same air of mystery gazing at the deep-hued trees and brush that line the banks of the river. To get a good feel for the river you can hire a pontoon boat from Mrs. Toney or at several places along the Homosassa including Island Girl Cruises. (Ms. Toney can take six passengers and charges $40 for two hours. Island Girl can take 19 passengers and charges $25 for two hours.)
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Tiny Homosassa has no original Homer, but the local library has a permanent exhibition of prints of some of his work. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently showing an exhibition of nearly 90 of his oils and watercolors titled “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents” which critic Roberta Smith called “revealing”.)
At least four Florida museums have watercolors of Homer. The Sam and Roberta Vickers family recently donated an important Florida art collection, including Homer’s “Foul Hooked Black Bass,” to the Harn Art Museum on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. The Norton Museum in Palm Beach as well as the Cici Museum and Hyatt Brown in Daytona Beach and the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, everyone has a work by Homer.
Homosassa may not be a particularly well-known tourist destination, but it has produced its fair share of history beyond Homer’s fondness for the town. For one thing, it was in Homosassa that David Levy Yulee, the first Jewish member of the US Senate, established a 5,100-acre sugar cane plantation operated by enslaved Africans.
Mr. Yulee was born in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas, which later became part of the US Virgin Islands. There was a small Jewish population there and his father was a Moroccan Jewish businessman who made his money in the wood. In the 1820s the family emigrated to Florida where Mr. Yulee studied law in St. Augustine and became deeply involved in railroad business. He entered politics and in 1845 was elected a Democrat to the Senate.
An aggressive supporter of the Confederacy, Mr. Yulee, who took his father’s name after his election, lost his plantation during the Civil War. He was briefly imprisoned after the war at Fort Pulaski according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
A few minutes drive from the waterfront, you can visit the remains of the sugar cane plantation and see the 40-foot masonry chimney, iron gears, and cane press. The plantation processed sugar cane into sugar, molasses and eventually rum.
For those who want to linger, dining by the water’s edge is one of the pleasures of Homosassa, whether it’s a casual lunch or dinner at The Shed, on the quayside at Macrae’s or across the river at Crump’s Landing. Both spots feature live music. Marguerite’s Grill has a menu that includes everything from refried green beans to shrimp and grits and shrimp with tomatoes, feta cheese, rum and lime. mains, including sandwiches, are around $15.
Sitting along the water, one is reminded of Florida’s appeal to anglers like Homer, who said, “This place suits me like it was made for me by a good providence.”