Upon entering The Met’s Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents exhibit, one glimpses, on a far wall in a gallery towards the back of the exhibit, Homer’s 1899 painting The Gulf Stream, which depicts an African American man sprawled across the deck of a tiny sloop, adrift amid a choppy sea. His rudder and mast are broken, and the sail hangs off the edge of his boat, dragging in the water. Sharks circle while a storm brews on the horizon, and a large clipper, seen faintly in the distance, seems to pass him by.
Homer added the clipper after his first showing of the work, as it remained unsold and an art dealer pressed him to elaborate on the piece. Homer wrote to him saying that the man in the painting “will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.”
But Homer was known for providing alternating narratives based on his audience, and it seems the audience he was speaking to on this occasion might have preferred a more sentimental portrayal of the painting’s hero than one that placed him in such a hopeless state of isolation.
Regardless of what Homer told his audience, The Met’s retrospective, which brings together their extensive holdings of his work along with notable loans from other institutions, reveals an artist who constantly pushed the boundaries of society’s expectations in search of an unflinching realism.
A meander through the various galleries of the exhibit en route to the culminating experience of standing before The Gulf Stream provides perspective on the evolution of Homer’s craft. The exhibit has a particular focus on the way in which he depicted African American people, and here Homer can be seen to first employ but soon move beyond the caricatures and overly simplistic representational techniques commonly used by his contemporaries.
Homer worked as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly and other publications throughout the Civil War, and in this capacity his initial depictions of African American people were inept and unstudied. However, his determination to be a truthful chronicler, along with his shift to the more serious medium of oil painting, led him to pioneer realistic depictions of all Americans as the nation emerged from war.
The entirety of Homer’s oeuvre prepared him for the mastery of subject matter portrayed in The Gulf Stream. Having toiled for years on seascapes in which fishermen, swimmers and lifeguards fought for survival on the harsh waters along the New England coast, Homer translated his handling of such dramatic scenes into a transcendent vision of human resilience, heaping onto his hero’s struggle with nature an implied question about his relation to the world.
This hero in The Gulf Stream looks defeated on many levels. With no way to propel or steer his boat, he grips a stalk of sugar cane, a cash crop representative of slavery in the Caribbean, the direction from which he comes, floating north with the current to an uncertain future, his boat having already been decimated by a storm as another looms on the horizon.
The clipper Homer later painted into the distance may deserve a much bleaker interpretation than the one he provided to appease potential patrons. It’s so far off, it seems highly uncertain this man will be seen and saved. Besides, the very meaning of being seen and saved in this instance depends upon unanswered questions regarding how he will be received by the people on this great ship that represents a society associated with racism and slavery.
Seen in this light, the clipper only adds to The Gulf Stream being a profound meditation on isolation. As we look upon this man imperiled by the forces of nature, the one glimpse we see of civilization presents possibilities as detrimental to his survival as the sharks swarming his boat.
Within this bleak meditation on the isolation of this one man, Homer captures the same transcendent human dignity and resilience present in all his greatest works. His 1885 The Fog Warning, depicting a lone fisherman attempting to row himself to safety amid the dangerously foggy Grand Banks of Newfoundland, prefigures the existential dread in the perilous seascape of The Gulf Stream. His 1893 The Gale, depicting a woman carrying her child along a stormy beach, celebrates the physical strength and courage of a woman in a way that defied conventions and demonstrated Homer’s interest in championing the marginalized, a sentiment thoroughly on display in The Gulf Stream. And his 1865 The Veteran in a New Field, depicting a soldier who has cast off his Union Army jacket to return to work in an overgrown field, contains poignant symbolism and pathos that is rare and beautiful and also evident in The Gulf Stream.
It might seem ironic that Homer should achieve such transcendent connections between his New England subjects and The Gulf Stream, which contains theme and symbolism so specific to the African American experience. However, it is precisely in Homer’s commitment to realism that his hero in The Gulf Stream speaks with a dynamic individuality that honors him alongside all the other fully realized figures of Homer’s art. And by freeing this man to speak the specifics of his historic plight, Homer elevates him to a hero of epic proportions beyond any other subject he ever depicted.
Perhaps this hero is in fact a tragic hero, and Homer certainly leaves that possibility open to interpretation. But that would only elevate his epic stature as a figure who speaks to all people in their most profound moments of suffering and isolation. Leaning up on one elbow and gazing into the distance, away from the storm and the sharks and the distant clipper on the horizon, he is undefeated at least in spirit. The clipper may pass him by, and the sharks and the storm may finish him off, yet somewhere from within his being is conveyed the most resilient form of hope.