Winslow Homer: Force of Nature
By Theresa Thompson - Art Correspondent
The Cotton Pickers, Winslow Homer, 1876. Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
Winslow Homer is called a Force of Nature in the title of the National Gallery’s major new exhibition.
I walked in not knowing a lot about this artist. I was not alone; few in this country know his name. Yet, arguably, when he died in 1910, he was the most famous artist in America, says Christopher Riopelle the exhibition’s curator.
That is precisely why the National Gallery has put on this exhibition, co-organised with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: to give us, this side of the Atlantic an opportunity to discover an artist who, although a household name in America, is nowhere near as well known in Europe. There is no painting by Homer in a UK public collection.
Now, 50 paintings and watercolours later, having walked around this exhibition celebrating over 40 years of the 19th century American artist’s career, I understood: he was, and the exhibition is a tour de force.
From the first moment to the last, there’s a powerful array of paintings on view. Colour. Drama. Narrative. Humanity. Humanity pitted against nature. Conflict and resolution; its aftermath. Depicted in a realistic, unsentimental style that at times seemed to prefigure later war reportage.
Sharpshooter, Winslow Homer, 1863. Oil on canvas. Portland Museum of Art, Maine.
‘Sharpshooter’ is one of the first works that caught my eye. Painted in 1863, when Homer was sent to cover the fighting in the American Civil War (1861–1865), it shows a Union soldier in blue uniform perching high in a tree, aiming his rifle sights at a distant undepicted human target. The rifleman’s face is a blur, as if pixelated to de-personalise.
Born in Boston, Homer (1836–1910) began his career working as a commercial illustrator for US periodicals such as 'Harper’s Weekly'. With the outbreak of war, the twenty-five-year-old illustrator was sent to the front lines and his pictures from that period, during which the Union States in the North and the Confederate States in the South fought - mainly on the question of slavery and its abolition – scenes of battle and camp life, quieter moments as well as more violent, in time became highly acclaimed paintings.
His aptitude for graphic art enabled him to capture moments charged with historical significance and emotive power, without creating overtly political statements, explained Riopelle.
Prisoners from the Front, Winslow Homer, 1866. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
‘Prisoners from the Front’ (1866), one of Homer’s most famous paintings, shows a Union captain facing a group of captured Confederate soldiers. Interestingly, there is an even-handedness to the portrayal, for although the prisoners are dishevelled in sharp comparison to the uniformed captain, he places the men in a horizontal band, eschewing any sense of hierarchy.
With these two examples, we can see the artist’s ability to render complex historical issues in relatively simple ways.
Clearly, he had a great eye for detail, but he understated it and left the narrative to us.
A Visit from the Old Mistress, Winslow Homer, 1876. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Museum of Art, Washington, DC
Never is this more evident than in the picture of an encounter between a group of newly emancipated women and their former mistress. Painted in 1876, ‘A Visit from the Old Mistress' depicts three black women and a child looking solemnly at their former owner, an upright woman, presumably a widow from her black garb and the light catching her ring finger. Tension and awkwardness are subtly described in the expressions and postures of its main subjects, evoking lingering conflicts, inequality, and trauma.
“The artist’s capacity to distil complex situations to the most powerful, yet simple, compositions led to many of his paintings and dazzling watercolours becoming emblematic of post-Civil War American life,” said Riopelle.
The exhibition is chronological and thematic, following his career. He spent time in Europe, nearly a year in Paris (1866-67), and upon returning to the United States he focused on the lives of African Americans after the end of slavery - in a period known as Reconstruction (1865–1877). For instance, in a famous painting from that period of adjustment, 'The Cotton Pickers' he painted his subjects working in the cotton fields, silhouetted against troubled skies.
The Gale, Winslow Homer, 1883-93. Oil on canvas. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts
Then comes a real surprise: Homer spent a couple of years at Cullercoats, a small fishing community on the Northumbrian coast. Having looked around London visiting the museums and studying antiquities and paintings, notably Constable and Turner’s tumultuous scenes of storms and shipwrecks, he headed to the artists’ colony north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and painted some tremendous scenes of his own. His poignant works show the dangers and hardships of maritime life. For instance, in 'The Gale' (1883-1893) a young Cullercoats mother and her child are seen struggling stoically against the elements in face of a North Sea gale.
Returning to America and moving to Prouts Neck, Maine, he continued working on dramatic sea pictures, including some of the Cullercoats ones. By 1884, tiring of the incessant cold and wet he took to seeing out the winters in the warmth of the Tropics, travelling to the Bahamas, Cuba, Florida, and Bermuda where he created intensely colourful watercolours of tropical gardens, Bahamian and seafaring life.
The Gulf Stream, Winslow Homer, 1899, (reworked by 1906). Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
'The Gulf Stream', painted in 1899, is the showpiece of the exhibition. This landmark tropical painting is the culmination of his enduring fascination with the Caribbean alongside a life-long engagement with the charged subjects of racial prejudice, geopolitics and ecology.
Redeveloped over years, it depicts a lone Black man on board a small fishing boat which has lost its mast, adrift on a roiling sea. Surrounded by sharks, with only a few stalks of sugar cane to sustain him, he is oblivious to a ship in the distance (incidentally, Homer added this touch later, perhaps as a hopeful sign of rescue).
'The Gulf Stream' has been interpreted as a meditation on mortality and the uneasy relationship between humans and the natural world. But says the Gallery, “with its focus on an endangered Black man, it also references intricate social, political, and historical issues of the era, from the legacies of slavery to the imperialist ambitions of the United States in the aftermath of the Spanish-Cuban-American War.”
Winter Coast, Winslow Homer, 1890. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art
The exhibition ends with Homer’s paintings from the rugged coast of Maine. I enjoyed these bleak and beautiful works, ‘Winter Coast’, 1890, above all. In them, perhaps symbolically, the human presence has virtually disappeared. It’s as if they reflect a desire to retreat into, or personally confront raw nature, having spent a lifetime observing others facing its perils.
Winslow Homer: Force of Nature
The National Gallery, Ground Floor Galleries,
Showing until: 18 January 2023.
For more information, visit nationalgallery.org.uk