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Winslow Homer: Force of Nature

By Zhiyi Fang | 04 Jan 2023


As one of the most well-known Realist American painters of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Winslow Homer’s works is for the first time being exhibited in the UK at the National Gallery, co-organized with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition contains over 50 of Homer’s paintings that span across 40 years of his artistic career, on view until 8 January 2023. Homer witnessed major historical events of America including the abolition of slavery and the American Civil War. One could see that his paintings are concerned with significant issues such as race, identity, and particularly the relationship between people and landscape. Born in Boston to an upper-middle class family, he travelled extensively to Cuba, Bahamas, France, and England during his lifetime. Even with paintings of the transparent Caribbean oceans, there is still a sense of uncertainty as the mighty Atlantic Ocean lingering in the background. What strikes me the most is his painting The Gulf Stream (1899) which is reminiscent of John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Sharks (1778). Many view this powerful painting as an analogy for African Americans’ impending fate, however, I would argue that Homer still provides a hint of hope. Floating in the turbulent Gulf Stream, the man is isolated on a small boat crushing into a group of sharks and yet he seems to be unbothered by his environment as he looks out into the distance. There is a European ship in the upper left background which is in the opposite direction of the Black man’s gaze. It is unsure if the ship is coming to rescue him since he is not looking towards it. Potential dangers are present both in front of and behind him, but he is looking sideways perhaps in search of a third option, a new opportunity to get himself out of the situation.

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899, oil on canvas, 71.4 x 124.8 cm

Note that the figure is holding onto stalks of sugarcane which is an important supply used for sugar production and very much assembles the appearance of a rope in this painting. Similarly, the black servant in John Copley’s painting also holds a rope despite that the other end is disconnected. Although the two men have very different mindsets, one awaiting his imminent death while the other trying to rescue his master, the sugarcane and the rope both symbolize the idea of a thread connecting the transatlantic ocean. The Gulf Stream current played an essential role in the trade of sugar and the transportation of African slaves while also connecting multiple positions of the Homer’s favourite painting spots. Here the Gulf Stream could be seen as a symbol for the historical background. On a grand scale, the Black African cannot escape from his possible death just as he cannot escape from his enslaved past. The sublime shows how one is helpless and fragile in the face of nature and the imperial influences. One individual, or even one particular group, could only follow the stream as they go down in history, but there is still a sense of hope for rescue, reconstruction, and redemption. In contrast, the painting The Veteran in a New Field (1865) evokes a brighter future, a new field. With his jacket discarded in the foreground, the ex-solider enjoys his peace as he harvests the crops. The composition of the painting is interesting in that the veteran is turning his back to the viewer with the fallen crops covering his uniform. It is as if he is trying to leave behind the war for the better future, and yet the past is inevitable. Again, Homer uses vast landscapes to speak to this complex interrelation of hope and despair.

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, oil on canvas, 61.3 x 96.8 cm

As Homer approached the end of his career, people are portrayed less and less often. Instead, he almost solely painted the Atlantic Ocean and pure seascapes. He had a studio near the coast of Maine and he dedicated the last 25 years of his life to his appreciation of the sea. His work Cannon Rock (1895) is very ahead of its time in that he fits the “rocky shore, pounding sea, and leaden sky” all in a square canvas just like an Instagram post. Everything that has happened on this ocean is swallowed and washed away by nature. Nothing is left but the raw greatness of nature.

Winslow Homer, Cannon Rock, 1895, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 101.6 cm

All images are courtesy of the National Gallery and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zhiyi Fang is an MA student at The Courtauld and is Reviews Editor for The Courtauldian.

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