With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Winslow Homer: The Melville of American Panting

“I am not at all sure that I know what Americanism really is,” the art critic Elisabeth Luther Cary told readers of The New York Times in 1936, “but so the case stands: Americanism really is, and, in art, Winslow Homer is its great exemplar.” There was little disagreement. His very name seemed made for the job, half muscular Greek adventure, half fretful Yankee Calvinism (his parents were inspired by the Congregational pastor Hubbard Winslow). During his lifetime, he managed—not without strategizing—to be both popular with the hoi polloi and admired by his peers. After his death in 1910, his husky seafarers and oddly concrete ocean sprays were a bridge between old-fashioned storytelling pictures and the 20th-century preference for expressive form. In 1995, when the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., assembled a magisterial retrospective, Homer was still “America’s greatest and most national painter.” He gave us our best selves: Currier and Ives without the kitsch, modernism with a human face. To John Updike, he was simply “painting’s Melville.”

This kind of flag-waving is no longer fashionable, or even comfortable, in an art world striving to be global and in a country where arguments over what counts as “real America” become nastier by the day. So it is not surprising that “Crosscurrents,” the biggest Homer show in more than a quarter century, positions the artist as part of a transnational Atlantic world, stretching from the Caribbean (where he made radiant watercolors of shark fishermen and limpid inlets) north to Quebec (leaping landlocked salmon and First Nations guides) and east to the English village of Cullercoats (heroic fishwives whipped by wind). In between lie his familiar stomping grounds: the battlefields of Virginia, the rocky coast of New England, the autumnal Adirondacks.

The map thus devised roughly follows the contours of the Gulf Stream, which is also the title of the first Homer painting purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a co-organizer of the exhibition, along with the National Gallery, in London. Indeed, The Gulf Stream (1899) is the centerpiece, a marker for how the curators—Stephanie L. Herdrich and Sylvia Yount in New York, Christopher Riopelle in London—envisage Homer for the 21st century. No longer an oracle of American innocence, he is recast as a poet of observed conflict: North versus South, man versus sea, nature red in tooth and claw.

Painted late in Homer’s life, The Gulf Stream nods back to his earlier dory-in-distress pictures, such as The Fog Warning and Lost on the Grand Banks (both 1885). A sailor is adrift on heavy seas in a boat that has lost rudder and mast, but the setting is not the despondent gray of the North Atlantic—the sea is blue, the sailor is Black, and the home port named on the stern is Key West. Sharks slice through the foreground water, and in place of pallid halibut the deck is strewn with red-and-green sugarcane curled like snakes. In the distance, two possible resolutions to the drama heave into view: on the left, a full-rigged ship and hope of rescue; on the right, a waterspout and certain death. The sailor sees neither—he is looking to the side, beyond the edge of the canvas. We can’t see what he sees, and we have no way of knowing which way the wind blows.

The painting was never universally loved. It took seven years to sell, and was acquired by the Met in 1906 only under pressure from Homer’s peers at the National Academy of Design. Early viewers complained that the boat was too tubby, the drawing inelegant, the story line unpleasant. More recent observers have found the melodrama excessive, like Sharknado without the humor. When it was shown at the Knoedler Gallery in 1902, some female visitors, worried about the sailor’s fate, prompted the gallery to ask for clarification. Homer wrote back:

You ask me for a full description of my picture of the “Gulf Stream.” I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description. The subject of this picture is comprised in its title …

I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times & I should know something about it. The boat & sharks are outside matters of little consequence. They have been blown out to sea by a hurricane. You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate negro who now is so dazed & parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.

This testy explanation satisfied no one, and The Gulf Stream has enjoyed a busy life in academic debate ever since, adduced as evidence of the artist’s thoughts on human frailty, Plessy v. Fergusonthe death of his father, or the charm of painterly maritime disasters.

Read entire article at The Atlantic