Winslow Homer: Life and Death Upon the Waters - The Gulf Stream
Updated: May 7, 2021
This painting is an enigma even though certain things seem evident. The boat is in rough waters; the mast is broken; it is rudderless; and the sharks have gathered like vultures waiting for the inevitable. Some have noted that the red streaks in the water prefigure the blood that is to come. Others see the open areas in the small craft as entrances to the tomb, with the crumpled sails being a shroud. Some feel that Homer, having suffered the death of his father the year before he painted this, may have, at age 63, been thinking of his own inevitable demise. The feeling of the plight of this young man was so overwhelmingly hopeless, that the artist later added the ship in the distance, as possible salvation. My question always has been why does the young man seem so calm? There was a story (legend?) in the Bahamas of a British sailor named McCabe who survived being robbed at sea, and set adrift in a hurricane. This is perhaps a version of that tale, but why is the young black man featured here in this drama instead of the Englishman? Why is he represented in such a casual pose? Is he just resigned to his fate? Does he not care? What is Homer, who came to know the Bahamas quite well, saying here about this young man and perhaps the people he comes from?
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was a New Englander, whose career as an illustrator allowed him to capture scenes from the Civil War for Harper's Magazine. His fluid ease with sketches and watercolors allowed him to capture the moment, whether it be soldiers in action or in repose. Being from Maine, Homer was quite comfortable with the sea, and the role it played in the lives of those who earned their livings from its bounty, enjoyed its pleasures, and feared its stormy moods. In fact the last 25 years of his life were spent in a seaside cottage owned by his family, where he painted his famous seascapes, a subject he took up after a stay in England in 1881-82. It is not a wonder that he received a commission from Century Magazine in 1884 to illustrate an article, "A Midwinter Resort," about Nassau in the Bahamas. The idea was to encourage the tourist trade, which at that point was about 150 people a season.
His work in the Bahamas showed me something about Homer that helped me resolve my feelings about that young black man he portrayed lying so unalarmed in that broken boat with the sharks circling all around. Homer approached the lives of the people of the Bahamas, a country made up of people some of whom had once been enslaved, by showing them in relationship to their environment just as he showed the New Englanders in relationship to theirs. There was no disparagement, no caricatures, just people living their independent lives as they chose to live them, in touch with their environment and unafraid of it.
Here we see a young man who has found a beautiful piece of white coral and is showing it off to the woman in the sailboat, as any proud fisherman might. The commentary provided on the museum's web page concerning this painting is written by David E. White, Jr., who describes Homer's attitude as, "[an] admirable effort to exhibit blacks as possessing citizenship in a global community, and such an effort, in the face of abject dehumanization, constitutes an act of restorative justice." Restorative justice in beautiful watercolor. Thinking back to his Civil War illustrations, it was one of those, The Bright Side
(1865) in which he showed a group of black U.S. Army teamsters taking a break from their heavy lifting to sit for a moment against a tent in the sunshine. Homer documented what he saw without casting anyone aside. That painting, in fact, marks the transition in his career from illustrator to painter.
The two pieces below show off Homer's technique, certainly from his days as an illustrator, in which he uses graphite to draw detail and watercolor to create the needed fluidity. The characters in the paintings are solidly represented, as are their vessels. Yet the pieces have all the freshness of a watercolor sketch, without overworking the distant clouds or shorelines. The focus is on the young men, their hunt, and the beautiful waters. The young men are also shown to be successful in gleaning what they want from the sea. They are at home in these waters in ways that the tourists to come would never be.
So I come back to the young man in the broken boat, in the stormy, shark-infested waters. I look at him now, and I do not see resignation or defeat at that moment. I see that he is alertly looking to his left, surveying possibilities and not concentrating on the sharks, whose behavior he probably knows all too well. While Homer did insert that distant ship to the right, others have observed that the water spout, the left over sign of the storm, is in the distance and probably not heading his way. Why? Sharks go to the ocean floor when storms come to avoid the turbulent surface of the sea. Does the man survive? Does he succumb? After surveying how Homer represents the people of these islands, I don't think that this fellow has given up just yet.
Homer may have given us another possible outcome in a piece called After the Hurricane
(1899). It is also ambiguous, but I'd like to think that our fellow has washed ashore, broken boat and all, and will wake up to go back to sea another day.
What do you think of Homer's story telling? Does this fellow survive or not? Why? Log in and tell us.
Homer's work is in Public Domain. Museum references and links are given.
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