Coastwide
The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, 11906. (Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

USA - Winslow Homer: A chronicler of US turbulence

A household name in the US, Winslow Homer created dramatic images of human resilience, depicting the US Civil War and the aftermath of slavery, writes Diane Cole.

From the moment you enter the exhibition Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents, you are immediately at sea, caught up in the US artist's 1906 masterpiece, The Gulf Stream. Against a swirling backdrop of storm-tossed waters and churning clouds, a lone black sailor lies propped against the edge of a small, battered boat. With his legs stretched before him, he turns his face to the side, away from both the damaged ship's mast that has left him adrift, as well as from the open-mouthed sharks lurking in wait. He fixes his gaze with stoic determination on the dark, expansive waters filled with waves through which any number of fish fly and jump. But focused as he is in that direction, he cannot see the distant ghostly outline on the opposite horizon of a three-masted ship that just might offer the possibility of rescue.

"All of Homer's themes come together" in this painting, says Stephanie L Herdrich, exhibition co-curator and associate curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They include the struggle and conflict inherent in the natural world; the physical and emotional trauma of the US Civil War; the inequities of race and slavery left unresolved by that war; the thoughtless devastation of nature, whether due to battle or predatory hunting; and the US imperialist ambitions in the aftermath of the Spanish-Cuban-American War. It's not the survival of the fittest that Homer dramatises, but the resilience that life requires to endure and withstand the struggles we meet. Taken together, these themes provide not just a subtext but a fuller context for a deeper understanding of his work.

The struggle for survival captured in The Gulf Stream is on one level obvious. But the deeper conflicts hinted at within the painting make it a touchstone of Homer's art, and emblematic of US history and culture.

To begin with, in this painting, as in so much of his work, Homer depicts a story in medias res – a literal drama of life and death, rescue or wreckage – that is still unfolding but remains as yet unresolved. These unknowns yield palpable tension, filling the canvas with suspense and ambiguity. Among the questions to be answered: who is the sailor, where does he come from, and what is his destination (not to mention, his destiny)?

Homer has provided a variety of suggestive clues, starting with the origins of the boat, whose name and home port, "Anna-Key West", are painted across its perilously tilting rear. As for its cargo, one of the sailor's bare feet lies atop an entangled set of colourful sugarcane stalks – a reminder of the commerce across the Atlantic Ocean that was at the heart of the slave trade, and whose legacy remained alive then, and continues now.

What are the metaphorical crosscurrents beyond the Gulf Stream that we confront in our lives today?

By titling his painting The Gulf Stream, Homer brought still another dimension to this cross-Atlantic entanglement. The Gulf Stream is a natural phenomenon that affects the ecology and climate on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Homer was well aware of its geographical course, having read works of oceanography, and himself having travelled along its route. Starting at its source in the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Stream's warm currents track the coast of US southern states before branching off at the tip of Florida towards the islands of Cuba, the West Indies, and Bermuda. From there, the stream travels swiftly up the North American Eastern Seaboard all the way to the northern edge of Canada before turning east across the Atlantic Ocean towards Northwest Europe, the British Isles and Scandinavia.

Winds of change

These currents are responsible for the accelerating wind velocity that carries ships more quickly from North America to Europe. But they can also contribute to destructive, high-speed hurricanes, like the one depicted in this painting, and the powerful storms that increasingly plague these same environments in our own time of climate change. No wonder that, gazing at Homer's The Gulf Stream, it's natural to wonder what will be the fate of this protagonist, caught in this storm's seemingly unyielding crosscurrents? What are the metaphorical crosscurrents beyond the Gulf Stream that we confront in our lives today?

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