Unny, right, how can Britain be so completely dominated by American popular culture, when one of America’s most famous painters is unknown here? This painter is Wilmslow Homer, and if you’ve never heard of him, neither have I, dear reader. Not long ago there was an exhibition of his marine paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, but other than that he is unfamiliar.
Yet, as this fascinating exhibit makes clear, there’s a lot to Homer, including an interesting take on England. Right now he’s on the radar because of his American Civil War paintings, and his later depictions of former slaves provide insight into how emancipation unfolded in human terms.
In fact, if there’s one picture worth a visit at this exhibit, it’s A Visit from the Old Mistress, where a former slave owner visits his former slaves. It’s a masterful exercise in understatement, utterly devoid of sentiment, with three black women staring darkly at their former owner, an upright and unrepentant figure. When you think about what could have been made of this subject, Homer’s image is explosively contained.
In fact, Homer’s portrayal of black Americans seems surprisingly restrained. In Dressing for the Carnival, a man in a carnival costume has his fabulous outfit sewn, surrounded by two women and a group of children. The women’s gestures are distinctive, with a fierce-looking woman chewing a clay pipe. The children are adorable, but poor and barefoot, and dignified. Who now knows the truth about the behavior of these individuals, but Homer’s treatment seems restrained and truthful.
He was famous as a Civil War artist and spent time with the Union Army. There is little grandeur in his war paintings, though there is nobility in Prisoners of the Front, 1866, showing the surrender of Confederate prisoners, while the figure of a sharpshooter, 1863, in a tree, his attention focused on his target, the barrel balanced on a branch, is finely composed.
The real surprise of the exhibition are the photos from England; he spent only a month in London and a year and a half in Northumbria, in the fishing village of Cullercoats on the North Sea. Apparently the place was a draw for artists and tourists, but it seems far less glamorous than the Breton villages where the French Impressionists painted. But from this inauspicious location, Homer drew some of his most striking works, with fisherwomen and lifeguards battling the elements. The Gale shows a tough guy walking along a windswept beach with a baby strapped to his back: he gives working class dignity without feeling.
It gravitated out to sea, Homer did, and there are memorable paintings of the Bahamas, the most famous of which, on posters, is The Gulf Stream, showing an exhausted black sailor lying on the deck of a small boat. , snapped the mask, looking away from a sailboat on the horizon, while around him, the sharks circled. If ever a painting evokes a story, it is this one.
But for my money, Homer’s darkest and most awe-inspiring works are those of the raw nature he painted at the end of his life, holed up in Maine. The dark, descending outline of the massive cliffs of Cape Trinity, Saguenay River, Moonlight, is pure Wordsworth. As for the Winter Coast, with a barely perceptible hunter leaning against a snowy slope, it sends shivers down your spine.
What a remarkable artist he is. A force of nature indeed.
National Gallery, from September 10 to January 8; nationalgallery.org.uk