Winslow Homer: Painter and Prophet
Winslow Homer has aged well. During his lifetime – he was born in Boston in 1836 and died in Prouts Neck, Maine, in 1910 – he was a critical and commercial success. Since his death, he has been considered the greatest American painter of the 19th century, and art lovers have continued to turn to his work. In 1998, Bill Gates paid $30 million for Homer’s last great seascape in a private collection. This April, the 90 oils and watercolors featured in “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents,” which runs through July 31 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will put him back at the forefront of our cultural conversation.
The most comprehensive exhibition of his art to have taken place since 1995, the Met show is filled with revelations. Rather than dwelling on Homer’s biography, “Crosscurrents” examines what made him tick. In the catalog of the exhibition, Max Hollein, director of the Met, and Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery in London, point out that Homer dealt with “the complex social and political problems of his time”. He dealt with the Civil War, Reconstruction, American aggression and climate change (before he had a name) in a way that has not lost its importance.
The two museum directors believe a “new understanding” will emerge from his thoughtful approach to the issues that still plague us. But as Stephanie Herdrich, the show’s co-curator, says, “We’re asking new questions” that will “introduce Winslow to a new generation.” Homer’s themes, says Herdrich, “are still relevant.” And the artist’s response to the problems of his time evolved over the course of his career, which spanned the 1860s through the 1900s. Take his depiction of war. When Homer put guns in the hands of his soldiers, cannons were the ultimate instruments of modern warfare. In 1896, he remembers looking through a rifle scope while participating in the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia in 1862, and what he saw repelled him. No wonder Sylvia Yount, the show’s other co-curator, calls Homer the “canonical chronicler of 19th-century America.”
In total, he went to the front three times. On his return home in June 1862, his mother reported in a letter: “Winslow went to the war front at Yorktown and camped two months…He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him. not. The result was that he became a painter.
The show at the Met opens with canvases that depict what Homer witnessed during the Civil War. Resolutely anecdotal, they have an honorable place in war reporting. As Christopher Riopelle, curator at the National Gallery in London, the only other ‘Crosscurrents’ place, puts it, “Homer’s eye for the telling detail that brings an image to life is evident in many of his early works”. Decades later, shortly after the Spanish-American War of 1898, the artist revisited another conflagration in one of his most compelling oils. This scene, however, has no fighters.
Searchlight on the entrance to the port, Santiago de Cuba, which dates from 1901 but is based on watercolors and drawings from 1885, is more universal than previous battle depictions. In fact, Homer did not witness any of the clashes in 1898. Herdrich says, “He was nowhere near Cuba at the time. In this discreet and poignant painting, he focused on deserted ramparts. He lit up the night sky with a searchlight that encapsulated the latest practice in modern warfare. The heavy guns aimed at ships likely to enter the harbor which he also depicted were practically museum pieces. After the fighting ended, approximately 65 Cubans were rounded up and dispersed to sites across the United States. For Herdrich, the artist “commented on American imperialism”. If so, the stillness of the scene suggests that he also envisioned a future where peace would be the norm.
During Reconstruction, Homer painted works that depicted the lives of newly independent Black Americans. In 1876, he depicted an elderly white woman visiting black women whom she had once enslaved. In 1899, a black protagonist appeared in the Gulf Stream, one of Homer’s most famous works. Sugar cane stalks are on the deck of the boat next to the shirtless figure, lying down and threatened.
That he is Black and accompanied by a culture once identified with slaves hardly seems accidental. As it stands, all seems lost. The mast has detached from the small vessel which is being buffeted by violent waves. A storm is approaching and sharks loom in the foreground. A rescue ship appears in the distance, but will it arrive in time?
As for Homer’s working methods, they were unusual. The Gulf Stream was based on sketches and watercolors that the artist had executed 15 years earlier. Although he had already exhibited the work, he subsequently repainted it several times. Additionally, in the lower left corner of the painting, he inscribed instructions for spectators to step back 12 feet when viewing the scene. And, in the end, we don’t know if the protagonist will survive. It was typical for Homer: he often didn’t resolve the results of his most dramatic scenes.
“Crosscurrents” also features paintings in which Homer engages with the great outdoors. In his early works, nature was a place where young children, elegant women, and hardy hunters and fishermen enjoyed themselves. Across green fields and under bright blue skies, little boys carried baskets of clams, couples played croquet and ladies strolled along the beaches.
Later, however, Homer conveyed the terrors the natural world could unleash. Based on some of the most dramatic paintings in this retrospective, such as The line of life (1884) and Reflux (1886), the artist clearly anticipated the dangers inherent in climate change.
The rescue he depicts in Reflux is breathtaking. Of the New York exhibition of this work, a newspaper reviewer observed, “After Mr. Homer’s intense saga, it’s a bit of a wait or other paintings…will seem tame.
Some of Homer’s most fascinating scenes involving the sea date back to when he lived in Cullercoats, England, a fishing community on the North Sea that had an artists’ colony. In 1881 Homer expected to spend three months in Europe; instead, he stayed for 19 years. While at Cullercoats, Riopelle notes, Homer observed “heroism, determination and strength”. It was, as Riopelle says, “a decisive turning point in the artistic development of Homer”.
Homer had always been itinerant. His watercolors and oil paintings offer a lesson in the geography of Gulf Stream locales, as well as mountain retreats. Among other places, he traveled to the Bahamas, Cuba, Key West, East Hampton, and Gloucester, Massachusetts. He visited the White Mountains of New Hampshire and in the Adirondacks he created over 100 paintings. During the 1890s he based many of his paintings on watercolors and sketches he made while wandering along the Gulf Stream. When repainting works after exhibiting them, he can remove a figure or two, making them more powerful. As for the seascapes composed of sky, ocean and rocks that he paints with pronounced and sharp brushstrokes, they have passages that border on abstraction. From 1890 until his death in 1910, in works using what Herdrich called “the rugged coast and the seething ocean”, the viewer becomes aware of the seasons, weather patterns, and even different times of day.
As we continue to grapple with complex social and political issues, Homer reminds us that these concerns have been brewing for a long time, but they are not the only drivers of art. To a friend, Homer once said, “You don’t have to paint everything you see. You have to wait and wait patiently until the exceptional, wonderful effect or aspect occurs. Then, if you have enough sense to see it, well… that’s all there is to it.
This story appears in the March 2022 issue of City & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW