If it were somehow possible to strip them of their content, the paintings of Winslow Homer would still be immensely satisfying. His oils and watercolors constitute the best pure painting in nineteenth-century American art. There’s a tremendous, and often abrasively sensual pleasure to Homer’s surfaces. Call it tactile friction, which manifests in the oil paintings as a multitude of varied surfaces, and in the watercolors through the counterpoint of transparent and opaque pigment. Friction also exists in Homer’s designs, in abrupt changes of value and a fondness for irregular shapes.
Of course, it’s neither possible nor necessary to view Homer in formal terms alone. His work contains plenty of thematic friction, which the artist was loath to explain. This is the subject of Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents, a fairly perfect exhibition curated by Stephanie L. Herdrich and Sylvia Yount, recently opened at the Met. We know he wanted the work to speak for itself, and except for the titles, Homer offered little or no explanation of his intent. The most famous example of Homer’s reticence—indeed, irritation— when pressed on narrative was his response to questions about The Gulf Stream.
I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description….I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times & I should know something about it. The boat & sharks are outside matters of very little consequence. They have been blown out to sea by a hurricane. You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate negro who now is so dazed & parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.
The Gulf Stream, supported by watercolor studies, is the show’s marquee image, a narrative drama that represents Homer’s last major thought on race: a Black man stoical in the face of death. Here is a crosscurrent, the confluence of themes that fascinated Homer for decades: the fraught experience of Blacks after the Civil War, and the reckoning with mortality. Homer would have been appalled by our desire to look under the hood—“I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description”—though the truth is he left a wealth of provocative clues. Alas, the artist has no chance to correct interpretations posthumously. A onetime director of the Met saw the hovering crows in the great The Fox Hunt as the embodiment of Freud’s “nightmare of the flying penis.” Sometimes, a crow is just a crow.
At the age of twenty-five, Homer covered the Civil War as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. The frontline drawings inspired his first oil paintings. Sharpshooter shows a Union soldier perched in a tree, booted foot outlined against a white sky; Homer later revisited this odd point of focus in a far better canvas, The Life Line, in which an equally anonymous man’s shoe is silhouetted against white water. In one painting the protagonist is charged with taking life, in the other with saving it. Both feature Homer’s gift for visual deflection, frustrating our desire to see the men’s faces and giving us a good look at their feet instead. In Defiance: Inviting a Shot before Petersburg, a panoramic and beautifully painted landscape is evenly divided between a dark ground plane and a cloud-laden sky. This is no hymn to American wilderness, nor a subtle allusion to a nation asunder. At the center stands a Confederate soldier driven mad by trench warfare, taunting a Union marksman. Professional snipers like the one Homer depicted in Sharpshooter were accurate from a mile distant, so the outcome is predetermined. The year was 1864, Homer was twenty-eight, and he had found his motif: lethal scenarios tucked into gorgeous landscapes.
With the exception of a caricatured figure in Defiance: Inviting a Shot before Petersburg, Homer’s depictions of recently emancipated Blacks avoid condescending stereotypes. His straightforward and sympathetic appraisal of Black culture was exceptional for the time. Dressing for the Carnival is his most visually rich painting of the Civil War era, the celebratory silk patterns contrasted against a frieze-like positioning of figures. The preparation takes on a sacramental significance, an essay in nobility that is characteristic of Homer’s figures regardless of race or gender (the exhibition begs for a related show that would concentrate solely on Homer’s humanism). Years later, the dazzling watercolors produced during Homer’s Caribbean trips often fixed on the Black men and women who worked the sea. The surroundings are sun washed and spectacular, but there is danger in the tropic heat. Northern hemisphere or southern, the sea is indifferent. The man who lies upon the deck of a broken boat in The Gulf Stream is a distant cousin to the fishermen in The Fog Warning and Lost on the Grand Banks. Homer’s pessimism, grounded in our ultimate insignificance before the forces of nature, makes him a spiritual heir to another master of marine painting who began as a graphic illustrator, Turner.
For years, my favorite seat at the Met has been in the American wing, in front of Maine Coast, Northeaster, Moonlight, Wood Island Light and Cannon Rock. In their view of nature as inherently dynamic rather than pastoral, these are paintings unlike any that preceded them in American art. Sometimes comparisons are made with Courbet’s seascapes, but nobody had approached the specific sense of the tactile, the concentrated weight and violence of Homer’s vision. Really, nobody has since. In removing the figure and any obvious narrative devices, the viewer is invited to behold the storm and churn without a surrogate, and to do so at perilously close range. Each canvas is designed differently, the relation of water to rock ever fluid and always right, as if there were no possible alternative to the finality of the compositions. Fluid is a deceptive word to describe the seascapes; most artists fix on aqueous qualities, on making water look wet. Homer’s paintings at Prouts Neck followed decades of study, particularly of the grandeur that could be elicited from the repetition of surf hitting land. He was more interested in primal force than mimetic surface. His waves are roughly as fluid as wet cement.
In another sense, that of pure picture making, surface is vital. Homer usually devoted extensive time and thought to the large oils—an exception was Wood Island Light (not in the show), which was supposedly painted in one spontaneous session as Homer stood in the moonlight beneath his studio. After exhibiting Northeaster with two figures standing on the rocks at left, he submerged them in the column of sea spray we see today. The revision emphasized a contrast in the tactile qualities of dense, variegated foam and smooth, immovable rocky mass. Homer found—or invented—cliffs the color of coal, their ebon richness pocked with maroon passages and unclouded by the sea spray that covers everything with a fine mist. There is a story that Homer’s brother built him a studio on wheels, which he moved about the rocks to work from different vantage points. A biographer dismissed the idea as impracticable, since the view through the windows would have been obscured by spray. In Maine Coast, the sea again moves across the canvas from left to right, this time swallowing much of the shoreline. It seems unlikely that Homer stood this close to the action, but rather, contrived the scene in the studio from sketches and memory. Thick white spume, applied with brushes and knives, overwhelms the foreground rock, partitioning it into a half dozen separate facets. In a moment the water will withdraw and the promontory will be revealed in its fullness. This was Homer’s design playground, an arrangement of black and white masses, pushing against each other until the patterns fell into place like the tumbler of a lock. There are no surfaces more complex, or rewarding, in American painting. Generations of painters responded: George Bellows sought the dramatic buoyancy; Frederick Waugh emulated the romantic aspects and Marsden Hartley abstracted the essential power. Maybe Franz Kline came closest in sheer pictorial impact, and his paintings aren’t even about the Maine seascape, as far as I can tell. In his ability to structure pigment that evokes the solid stuff of sea and stone, Homer was unmatched.
In the end, Homer didn’t need to tell a story, but when he did it was a ripper. The two late animal paintings are here, The Fox Hunt from Philadelphia and Right and Left from Washington. Again, there’s nothing in our native lexicon that comes close. The Fox Hunt was his largest canvas. It shows the title animal, an admirable burnt orange specimen, trudging through mid-winter snow while being pursued by hungry crows. Homer repainted the birds after a critique by the local stationmaster; together, they subsequently spent three days luring crows with corn so Homer could draw them in flight.
Homer painted Right and Left while recovering from a stroke. The composition is similar to that of an Audubon print, with two goldeneye ducks arranged asymmetrically. Pinioned against the ocean, the ducks mesmerize by virtue of their grace. The birds rise from a wave trough, filling the foreground plane at the moment they’re struck by gunshots. After years of leaving it to our imagination, Homer has brought us the exact instant of death. The artist has placed us not merely close to the drama; he—and we—are looking straight down the muzzle of a shotgun. The blast that takes out the ducks hits us, too. Left and Right was Homer’s last major work. He died the next year.
The themes that Homer attempted in oils are echoed in his watercolors, though less obviously. The tendency has been to assess them primarily for their freedom of execution and brilliant color. It’s understandable that Homer’s technical acumen as a watercolorist is a distraction; the design and broad washes of color in Natural Bridge, Bermuda render the horizontal figure of a British soldier in the lower right corner a bit incongruous. Maybe that’s what Homer was getting at. In The Turtle Pound, one man hands a turtle to another in a holding tank. The curators may be stretching things by noting that turtle meat had become a delicacy in the U. S. and Britain, thus making the painting an implicit comment on colonialism. Is the appearance of a British naval flag in Hurricane, Bahamas, a tacit reference to political turmoil? I’m skeptical of the determination to see veiled commentary in everything Homer painted, yet the show’s larger point, that the artist was fascinated by conflict throughout his career, is valid. That Homer’s narratives could be ambiguous or presented surreptitiously only deepens the paintings’ effectiveness. On first viewing, one is unlikely to recognize that the deer in the glowing watercolor An October Day is swimming to escape a hunter in a distant canoe; the animal’s dreary fate is told in an oil, Hound and Hunter. Burnt Mountain is intriguing as a technical exercise—the layering of mountainside, figures and sky is complex—but a landscape painter doesn’t pour that much energy and insight into a turbulent swath of clouds unless something is up. The roots of an upturned tree that once took nourishment from soil now appear to radiate from the head of one of the resting hunters. The effect is inexplicably eerie.
Such is the depth of the show that there are major works I haven’t mentioned. Snap the Whip, Breezing Up, Eight Bells, Undertow and After the Hurricane, Bahamas, are landmarks in Homer’s career and essential images in a survey on American painting. I’m sure someone has compared him already to Twain or Hemingway, as possessing a uniquely American vernacular. Homer can be seen as a realist and a mythmaker, as pure painter and storyteller. His motives and meanings are open to interpretation, yet they remain, as he would have wished, stubbornly cryptic.
Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 31, 2022.