Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” is not something you can spy from afar and simply walk by. More than four feet across and more than two feet high, it shows a shirtless Black man sprawled across the deck of a small wooden boat, pitched steeply toward us by a rolling sea. Sharks thrash about in the turbid water between us and the man.
Winslow Homer was sentimental. That’s a good thing.
Homer (1836-1910) has you in his hands. A dealer? He’s more like a campfire narrator, his nostrils tickled by firelight, unfurling his story by way of a dozen choice details.
Our hero’s situation is desperate. The boat’s mast has snapped off. Its cargo includes three or four long stalks of sugar cane (a reminder of the industry sustained both by slavery and the Gulf Stream). There are whitecaps. A massive waterspout swirls up from the horizon at right. At left, you can make out a sailing ship heading the wrong way. The water, meanwhile, is laced with ribbons of red seaweed resembling trails of blood.
Those sharks. You count them. Five might have been overkill. Four we’re okay with. But Homer doesn’t leave it there. On the right, six flying fish flash by like oversize dragonflies. Their brief appearance, rather than the circling sharks (to which the man appears accused), is what has his attention. What is Homer driving at? What do the flying fish represent? The possibility of escape? Of freedom?
The Met’s show, which was organized by Stephanie L. Herdrich and Sylvia Yount and will travel to the National Gallery in London, is the largest overview of Homer’s career since a 1995 retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It’s a knockout.
Without ignoring the Northeastern subjects with which Homer is most identified — his paintings and watercolors from Maine, the Catskills and Gloucester, Mass. — Herdrich and Yount emphasize works he made in locations farther south along the Gulf Stream — including Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas — along with some made in England.
“Crosscurrents” coincides with the release of an exemplary biography — “Winslow Homer: American Passage” by William R. Cross, who demonstrates that Homer emerged as a storyteller of enormous power and subtlety in a period — the 1860s — when America was casting around for the right story to tell about itself.
The “right story” always seems clear at a distance. The narrative America had to choose was — obviously! — the one that ended slavery and finally honored the country’s founding narrative: that all people were created with an equal right to liberty. At the time, however, everything was roiling and turbid.
The nation’s mast had snapped. A hurricane had blown it out to sea. More than 600,000 people were to die in battle before the Emancipation Proclamation won out, and still Black people were allowed to enjoy only a “brief moment in the sun,” as WEB Du Bois dubbed Reconstruction.
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By the time Homer painted “The Gulf Stream,” in 1899, white supremacist propaganda had rewritten the story of the Civil War (which Homer had witnessed as a war artist). Confederate soldiers were being glorified and Reconstruction recast as a tragic mistake. Convict leasing extended the practice of slavery, lynchings multiplied and a deluge of racist, dehumanizing stereotypes spread through popular culture.
Homer was attentive to all this. He had been in Boston in 1860 when Frederick Douglass was forcibly evicted by 50 policemen after telling a large crowd that “the freedom of all mankind was written on the heart by the finger of God.” He had lived through the Civil War. He had crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice and traveled up and down the Atlantic coast. So he had been painting various aspects of race relations for several decades.
Examples in the Met show include “The Cotton Pickers,” one of dozens of compassionate portrayals of female laborers Homer made over his career (Cross calls him a “proto-feminist”); the Met’s own “Dressing for the Carnival,” a beautiful, realistic work of enormous subtlety and cultural complexity, painted at the end of Reconstruction; and “Near Andersonville,” of which Cross writes: “Never before had an American painter placed an appealing Black woman at center, alone, the vessel of hope for her country.”
The curators present “The Gulf Stream” as the culmination of these works. History has certainly judged it so. Alain Locke, known as the dean of the Harlem Renaissance, said “The Gulf Stream” “broke the cotton-patch and back-porch tradition” and “began the artistic emancipation of the Negro subject in American art.” Contemporary Black artists, including Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall, have paid complicated forms of homage to the work.
Asked for a description of “The Gulf Stream” by a staffer at his New York gallery, Homer replied: “I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description.” But he didn’t leave it there. He took the trouble to make two things very clear: First, that he knew whereof he painted. “I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times,” he wrote — evidently in a huff — “& should know something about it.” Second, that if he were a pictorial storyteller, he would not be the kind to wrap hard things up in pretty bows.
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Homer told the gallerist (his pen drenched in sarcasm) that he could tell the “inquisitive schoolmarms” who want to know about “The Gulf Stream” that “the unfortunate negro who now is so dazed and parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home & ever after live happily.”
So if “Gulf Stream” was a commentary on the predicament of Black people in the South — caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, eyes fixed on fleeting freedom — Homer didn’t want to offer false hope. Rather, he wanted viewers to “draw their own conclusions.”
Even more, I think, he wanted to paint the sea, some sharks, a boat and a man.
It is fun to be reminded, in Cross’s biography, of all the criticism that came Homer’s way. His manner of painting, he would read, was crude, sketchy, fatally lacking in finesse. Of course, all such criticisms pointed to a cleavage in the consensus around art that was bigger than Homer. Impressionist and other plein-air painters in France had already shattered the old criteria. But the ambivalence many critics expressed about Homer is nonetheless instructive. They seemed to sense in advance that the very qualities they singled out for criticism might soon be regarded as virtues.
Homer’s work could be “horribly ugly,” wrote Henry James, “but there is nevertheless something one likes about him” — namely, that “he naturally sees everything at one with its envelope of light and air.”
A critic in the Nation, meanwhile, thought Homer’s style too rough, and yet admitted that each work was “perfect in telling its story: character of hero, relevance of surroundings, degree of expression, type, age, atmosphere, time of day, strength or reluctance of color — every study is a rounded sonnet sufficient to itself.”
These qualities — Homer’s incisive sense of drama, his “natural” ability to convey unities of action and atmosphere, and, yes, his “roughness” (really just a healthy lack of fuss) — are the very things that distinguish him today as America’s greatest 19th-century painter.
Homer’s storytelling can sometimes lapse into rhetoric. The big oil paintings such as “The Life Line” (1884) and “Undertow” (1886) that did so much to boost his reputation during his lifetime look corny today. But Homer was also celebrated by contemporaries for his watercolors, which are unequaled by any American artist (except perhaps John Singer Sargent).
Fully half the works in “Crosscurrents” are watercolors (six are directly related to “The Gulf Stream”). Many depict southern locations, where sunlight sharpened Homer’s color sense and tropical fecundity encouraged his brilliance with foliage. (Homer’s palm trees almost deserve a show of their own.)
One of the show’s most beautiful works is a close-up rendering in watercolor of five oranges growing on a tree. The design is asymmetrical, possibly influenced by Japanese aesthetics. The effect (orange against green, with blue shadows, the implied perfume of orange blossoms providing an olfactory descant) sings of piercing freshness.
It’s also a reminder that Homer’s storytelling, both his illustrator’s taste for drama and his occasional forays into poetic metaphor, were tempered everywhere by a sunstruck sensuality, a physical delight in being in the world, that are for me, the deep source of all that makes him great.
Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents Through July 31 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. metmuseum.org.