Winslow Homer: Beyond the Sea – National Gallery


I first encountered Winslow Homer’s work at the National Gallery in Kehinde Wiley: The Prelude where Wiley included paintings inspired by Homer’s The Herring Net and Lost on the Grand Banks. It is interesting that Wiley chose these images of white North Atlantic fishermen to pursue his strategy of inserting black bodies into spaces previously reserved for whites, because, with his painting The Gulf Stream, Homer had already produced an image very similar.

Homer’s concern for the fate of freed slaves began during his childhood

In The Gulf Stream, Homer shows us a lone black man in peril, adrift in a dismasted, rudderless boat threatened by sharks and a distant waterspout but who, nonetheless, remains resolute in the face of his own demise. That his boat is in the Gulf Stream and that next to him in that boat are stalks of sugar cane, the growth of which led to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, is a powerful visual reference to the Passage du Medium through which slaves were transported without their consent to work for European and American plantation owners. Unlike Wiley, who references other works by Homer, artists such as Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker engaged directly with The Gulf Stream; Marshall turning the image into an “allegory of liberation” by rejecting black trauma for black joy and Walker alluding to the catastrophe of the lives lost on the Middle Passage and the absence of these tragic stories in narratives and historical representations.

Winslow Homer A Visit from the Old Mistress 1876 Photo Artlyst

Winslow Homer: Force of Nature presents the story of this iconic and disputed image. It’s the one in which Homer – from his employment with Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War to illustrate war scenes to his Reconstruction-era paintings – insists, as Carol Strickland suggests, “on investing his images of the black community with the same realism he displayed in painting white subjects. Homer said, “When painting, try to write down exactly what you see. Anything else you have to offer will come out anyway. What emerges from paintings such as The Visit of the Old Mistress, The Cotton Pickers and Dressing for Carnival, is a deep sense of the humanity of those who are either enslaved or oppressed, sometimes in stark contrast to their oppressors. .

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that it was truly unusual at the time “for Homer to bet so much on black subjects related to Reconstruction” and that his images were “really bold, really different.” That Homer then repeats this focus on the deep humanity of those underprivileged within the society of her day in images of strong and provocative women, such as The Gale and Inside the Bar – works inspired by her time in Cullercoats, on the northeast coast of England – is all the more impressive.

Homer’s concern for the fate of freed slaves began during his childhood, when discussions of slavery and the abolitionist movement were an integral part of his daily life. At one point, his parents attended different churches: his mother Henrietta attended an abolitionist church and his father Charles attended one that was strongly against it. They later moved to Cambridge with abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was also a strong supporter of women’s rights.

While his interest in the pressing issues of his time, such as conflict and race, is strongly present in his work, it is the relationship between humanity and the environment expressed in turbulent seascapes that becomes his main focus. purpose, reflecting both his travels around the world and his home on the coast of Maine.

Winslow Homer undertow 1886

Winslow Homer Undertow 1886 Photo: Artlyst

The sea takes over, so that by Winter Coast (1890), the abstract force of the raging sea overwhelms both land and canvas, flooding the image and jeopardizing the vulnerable hunter in the face of the wilderness. In the current context, this is a disturbing image which joins concerns about rising sea levels. The power of the ocean is literally overwhelming. A somewhat more peaceful, though still eerie and brooding work, Cape Trinity, Saquenay River, Moonlight approaches abstraction, anticipating certain aspects of black paintings such as those of Ad Reinhardt. Here we are shrouded in night and blackened water. Another late work, Kissing the Moon, has an elegiac allure and a difficult rapprochement between three fishermen and the ocean which is their enveloping world.

This stage of life is when Homer writes that he thanks the Lord for the opportunities for reflection in the “dark and cold loneliness of the winter months”. Having become his main subject, the power of the ocean is treated with an anxious appreciation similar to that of the fishermen and other sailors he portrays in works like Kissing the Moon.

Homer is an artist who, although a household name in America, is completely unrepresented in British public collections. This show therefore appears to us as revealing of its value and its contemporary relevance.

Top photo: Artistyst © 2022

Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, National Gallery, September 10, 2022 – January 8, 2023

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