A show of masterworks at the Met snaps into sharp focus the great American artist’s contemporary relevance.
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The wondrous exhibition “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art begins with two picture-window-size holes in the wall: A visitor peers into one opening and then, through it, the other. Together they add a thrilling air of unpredictability. They also “frame” a painting hanging on a third wall deeper in the show: a fraught canvas titled “The Gulf Stream” that many consider Homer’s greatest work. It depicts a muscular, barechested Black man who lies, propped up on his elbows looking grimly into the distance, on the deck of a fishing boat with a broken mast. The hurricane has passed and his craft tilts toward capsizing, as sharks circle in the bloodied waters.
“The Gulf Stream” was painted in 1899, and exhibited a year later but Homer slightly readjusted its drama over the next six years. By 1906, when the Met purchased the painting, he had added a ship on the horizon to the far left, implying that conditions might improve, and beefed up a waterspout to the right, hinting that they might not. This work was the fruit of Homer’s winter trips to the Bahamas, where he fished and made sketches and watercolors to be worked into paintings in his Maine studio. It is also the inspiration for this revelatory exhibition, which takes a fresh look at the themes of struggle and conflict in Homer’s art and simultaneously (in my view at least) clarifies his development as a radical painter on the brink of modernism.
This show’s 88 oils and watercolors constitute a streamlined retrospective that is about a third the size of the lavish Homer retrospective at the Met in 1996. Organized by Stephanie L. Herdrich and Sylvia Yount of the Met, with Christopher Riopelle of the National Gallery, London, it follows the artist’s development from his first oil in 1863 to his death in 1910, scanting certain phases and groups of works. But it snaps into sharp focus the thematic and formal evolution of Homer’s art and reveals a contemporary relevance that no other 19th-century American painter can muster.
Homer was born in Boston in 1836, the middle son of Charles Savage Homer, a hardware merchant, and Henrietta Benson Homer, who encouraged his interest in art. At the end of 1854, he began an apprenticeship with a Boston lithographer, from which he emerged in early 1857 absolved never to work for anyone again. He set up a studio and within a few months was a sought-after illustrator. In August his first illustration appeared in Harper’s Weekly and within two years he relocated to New York. Refusing to join Harper’s staff, he nonetheless became its artist-correspondent, making three trips to Virginia to observe battles and the lives of enlisted men in order to illustrate the magazine’s Civil War coverage.
In 1863, Homer enrolled in a life drawing class at the National Academy of Design. He would be largely self-taught as a painter, and also in 1863, essayed his first oil, the glaringly promising “Sharpshooter” (1863), seen at the start of the exhibition. It shows a Union sniper wedged in a tree surveying things through a newly invented telescopic viewfinder. Within three years Homer was an associate of the Academy, then a full member, which required the submission of a diploma painting. On the reverse of his, the artist wrote “Winslow Homer would like to have the privilege of painting a better picture.”
“The Gulf Stream,” installed at the show’s midpoint with numerous watercolor studies for it, links two sides of Homer’s topical concerns: the Civil War and especially the plight of Black women and men in its aftermath, and the human struggle to live with nature. Homer’s images of Black people, seen in his work for Harper’s, his paintings and, most profusely, his Caribbean watercolors are, at their best, the most empathetic and least biased of any American artist of his time. This is apparent in “Near Andersonville,” (1865-66) a small painting of a young, resolute woman standing in a darkened doorway lost in thought as a group of Confederate troops march by. Homer grants his Black subjects an unusual degree of psychic interiority, worthy of the powers of observation he honed as an illustrator.
In contrast the features of his white subjects tend be impassive and undifferentiated when they are seen at all. Interiority he mostly left to Thomas Eakins, his junior by eight years and his partner in pioneering American realism. This may be consistent with the lack of personal emotion in his work and his prickly Yankeeness and sense of privacy. He was an artist of outside forces.
It is easy to see “The Gulf Stream” as an example of these forces bearing down on all living beings. The struggle against nature is also enacted in Homer’s paintings of sea rescues and catastrophes, sturdy fisher folk struggling with boats and nets, and gale-blown families anxiously waiting for their men to return. But the fatalistic protagonist and finned predators of “The Gulf Stream” also serve as a metaphor for the unrelieved obstacles and threats for Black people and especially for Black men, that remain crushingly pertinent today.
This show circles through different painting styles and Homer’s expanding skills. Works at the end of one section may signal developments ahead, most clearly in “Promenade on the Beach,” which finishes off Homer’s rural and seaside scenes of the late 1870s with two well-dressed young women walking along the shore. Overhead, we see threatening storm clouds, which prevail in the rescue paintings. There is also a continued tension between the illustrational and the painterly, most clearly in “The Wreck of the Iron Crown,” a watercolor (1881) that depicts a lifeboat with a minutely detailed rowing crew of 10, heading for a foundering ship through torrents of exuberant white dots of paint.
Through these phases he became increasingly innovative as a realist and picture builder of bluntly simple compositions, using thick, vigorously handled paint to add power to his forms, and to push his final seascapes to the edge of abstraction. His penchant for dividing canvases edge to edge with stark horizontals (like a field of wheat or a stretch of beach) and especially for emphatic diagonals (whether sloping rock or waves) was admired by the Minimalist Donald Judd looking for artists whose sensibilities he deemed distinctly American, free of European traditions and influences. But Homer’s acute observation of nature — light, atmosphere, weather — his use of wet-on-wet painting and tendency to paint from life qualify him as an Impressionist.
In the two decades before his death in 1910, Homer expanded the tension in his art, making it encompassing and inevitable. From the perch of his studio above Maine’s coast, he painted a large group of marine images that are all but devoid of human life. He observed the ocean’s movements as closely as any painter ever has as it crashed onto rocks, sent up huge plumes of spray, and then pulled away from shore in a long quiet inhale before thundering back again.
This action is the focus of “Northeaster,” where a sloping wave parallels the slant of an immense rock; water curls toward shore at the right, and disintegrates into a large plume toward the left. The abundance of observed fact regarding seawater in these magnificent, pitiless paintings is stunning. Combined with the formal power of the artist’s insistent surfaces and austere compositions, it forces us to grasp, in a way that goes beyond images, the cruel indifference of nature and the inescapable fact of death.
Homer softens this message in a black-on-black nocturne that follows, “Cape Trinity, Saguenay River, Moonlight” (1904) which has not been seen in New York since the 1996 retrospective. Notable for its stillness, it presents his signature bank of dark clouds, blocking most of a crescent moon and, far below, a narrow curl of river. In the space between a group of dark buttes looms, shoulder to shoulder — gentle giants that watch over us but yield little ground to stand on. “Cape Trinity” alone is worth the likely wait to see this spectacular show.
Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents
Through July 31, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.
Winslow Homer: Radical Impressionist – The New York Times