Homer’s Atlantic World with themes of challenge, struggle and rescue.

Sharon Lorenzo reviews the Winslow Homer show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

 

The Metropolitan Museum staff of American art curators, Stephanie Herdrich and Sylvia Yount, spent a decade planning this magnificent show and catalog with lenders from all over the globe and underwriters galore. It is brilliantly installed on soft gray walls that invite a visitor to linger and really look at the chronicle of a 19th century American artist whose paintings and works on paper grappled with the conflicts in the United States and around the globe with a  fine-tuned lens.  Winslow Homer (1836-1910) grew up in Boston as the son of Charles and Henrietta Homer, beginning his artistic career at age 19 as an apprentice to a local Boston lithographer. Quiet, strong-willed and terse like his mother, he worked on everything from sheet music to wood engravings such as this one published in Harper’s Weekly. Very quickly the American public noted that this conflict was not a series of picnics in Virginia.  Coming from Massachusetts that abolished slavery in 1783, Homer knew this Civil War trauma was paralyzing the American nation with the death of so many innocent young men.

Winslow Homer, May 17, 1862, Rebel Soldiers, Harpers Weekly.

In 1859 Homer moved to New York City and enrolled at the National Academy of Design for a brief stay in classes using oil paints.  One of his most famous works from this epoch is entitled, Prisoners from the Front, from 1866 on view in this show. Here we see a Union soldier with rebel prisoners in a vivid depiction of their despair and surrender. Curator Sylvia Yount noted, “Homer examined the collective trauma as a metaphor for the death of our national innocence.”[1]

Winslow Homer, Prisoners from the Front, 1866. Oil on canvas,
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1867 at the age of 31, Homer left for his first trip to Europe. He saw the works of French artists, Millet and Courbet, at the Louvre Museum which art historians thought was a transformative moment for Homer. In the Met catalog, Christopher Riopelle noted the similarity between the work, The Sower of 1850 by Millet and Homer’s, The Veteran in a New Field of 1865 where a young soldier has put aside his weapon and military jacket in the foreground to tend his wheat field as a metaphor for the nation’s return to peace and regrowth.[2]

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, oil on canvas,
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jean- Francois Millet, The Sower, 1850. Oil on canvas,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Upon his return to the states, Homer moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1873 and set up a studio near the seaside.  He exhibited works for sale at the Boston Art Club and the Knoedler Gallery in New York and was chosen as one of the participants in the 1876 Centennial show in Philadelphia where his entry, Breezing Up, received rave reviews. William R. Cross did both an exhibition and biography of Homer in 2019 at the Cape Ann Museum entitled, “A Marine Painter’s Journey” chronicling his formative years in Gloucester by the sea.

Winslow Homer, Breezing Up, 1873-6. Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In 1881 Homer set out again to Europe and settled in a small rural community on the North Sea called Cullercoats.  There he again observed a vibrant fishing community.  Here scholars feel that he honed his passion for heroism on the sea where fishermen used great strength and determination to match the vigor of their natural surroundings. His work of 1884 called The Life Line, showed a tortuous rescue of a woman at peril on the sea being hauled ashore to safety.

Winslow Homer, The Life Line, 1884. Oil on canvas,
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

After returning to Gloucester, Homer set out once again for travels in the Bahamas, Florida, Cuba, and Bermuda.  He began to paint in watercolor to capture the allure of the vibrant palette in these tropical locales.  He observed the  Black population living in small huts and harvesting products like sponges, turtles and conchs.  He was aware of the local predators as well with the ever-present sharks in the water.   One of his most iconic works which shows a black man marooned on a boat which has lost its mast in a stormy sea with sharks circling his hull is called The Gulf Stream, of 1899.  He was aware of the turbulent weather that can curse this part of the Atlantic Ocean.  We can even see remainders of sugar cane on the deck reminiscent of the local produce in the Bahamas and Bermuda.  Grieving after the deaths of his mother and father, this image reminds us of our own mortality.


Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899, oil on canvas,
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In his final years, Homer was able to travel with his brother Charles for some fishing in remote locations in Quebec. Together they searched for the Atlantic salmon prized by sportsmen.   In this work called, Shooting the Rapids, we can see Homer and his brother hanging on amidst the roaring Saguenay River.  Once again, we note Homer’s comment on the fierce competition between man and nature for control of his manifest destiny.

Winslow Homer, Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River, 1905-10. Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another American artist, Rockwell Kent, said the following about Homer: “He exemplifies the American character: strong, simple, honest and true, and by the power of those qualities profoundly moving.”[3]  With his peers, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, Homer was able to express the common and shared humanity of his culture, as tense and complicated as it was in his lifetime in the United States and beyond.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 11- July 31, 2022 

1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City

The National Gallery of London

September 10, 2022- January 8, 2023

 

 

 

[1] Sylvia Yount, “Reconsidering Winslow Homer: Methods and Meanings.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022, p. 17.

[2]  Christopher Riopelle,” These Works are Real: Winslow Homer and Europe.”   Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022, p. 86.

[3] Sylvia Yount, op. cit., p. 15.