The Sea and War at the National Gallery

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An illustrator who recorded America’s Civil War and later transitioned from drawing to painting to become one of America’s preeminent artists is the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery. Winslow Homer’s work is little known outside of the US, so this exhibition is a rare opportunity for Brits to see his work up close, with the entire exhibition based on loans many of which have never been seen in the UK before.

A larger version of the exhibition has previously been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and has been controversial as it took a fresh look at this revered artist, expanding on his most famous works to show a much deeper look. on his work “through the prism of conflict”

Although he began as a war artist producing illustrations for a weekly magazine, it was a series of oil paintings he produced after the war from his sketches that established his reputation as a painter. Although his paintings of the war show it in all its brutality, his post-war paintings were heavy with reconciliation and the rebuilding of society.

The exhibition opens with Prisoners From The Front, showing two facets of the Civil War encounter, based on a real event. Unusually for the time, both sides are portrayed as equal, on equal height, as part of his effort that the winners are not seen as dominating the losers. He didn’t shy away from war however, with a few paintings, one of a Unionist sniper and one of a Confederate soldier, often seen as a pair.

It also recorded much of the society at the time, from cotton pickers to carnivals and ladies’ walks. It is a precious testimony to the life of ordinary people at a time when the news mainly focused on the rich and the famous.

A visit to England in 1881 led to a massive shift towards landscapes and the sea, where he painted memorable works of Cullercoat fisherwomen with stormy seas as a background.

Homer was known to often rework his paintings if they didn’t sell.

One of his most famous works, The Gulf Stream, of a man in a small fishing boat surrounded by sharks was painted in 1899, but repainted differently in 1906. It has since become an icon of black imagery .

After returning to the US, Homer clearly fell in love with the sea he saw in the UK and moved to a studio apartment overlooking the Atlantic, which was to be his home for the rest of his life.

The exhibition has a number of small explanatory notices, but it would have been nice to have more information about the paintings, especially information about the changes Homer made to certain works and why.

His early works are almost documentary in style and detail, gradually becoming more abstract until you come to his last work, a blackened coastal cliff that is almost too dark to make out detail.

With over fifty paintings, spanning over forty years of Homer’s career, this exhibition is part of a program of exhibitions at the National Gallery which aims to introduce great American artists to British and European audiences.

The exhibition, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, is at the National Gallery until January 8, 2023.

Adult: £12 | Reduced price: £10 | Under 18: free | Members: Free

Tickets can be reserved in advance from here.

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