NEW YORK – You don’t see the picture that beats the heart of spring blockbuster Matt “Winslow Homer: Cross Streams” until the end. So it should be: Homer himself understood the mechanics of suspense. It has attracted you from afar with reliable, orderly compositions, sharp tonal contrasts and bright color blocks. Then, like a croupier, handing out cards, he laid out all the bets: each was a reason to look.
Homer’s “Gulf Stream” is not something you can spy on from afar and just walk through. More than four feet in diameter and more than two feet in height, it shows a black shirtless man sprawled across the deck of a small wooden boat steeply thrown toward us by the sea. Sharks are bustling in the muddy water between us and man.
Homer (1836-1910) holds you in his arms. The croupier? He is more like the narrator of a bonfire, his nostrils tickling the light of the bonfire, unfolding his story through a dozen details.
The situation of our hero is desperate. The mast came off the boat. Its cargo includes three or four long stalks of sugar cane (a reminder of an industry supported by both slavery and the Gulf Stream). There are white hats. A massive gutter rises to the right of the horizon. On the left you can see a sailboat heading in the wrong direction. The water, meanwhile, is covered with ribbons of red algae that resemble traces of blood.
Those sharks. You count them. Five may have been superfluous. Of the four we have everything in order. But Homer doesn’t leave it there. To the right, like dragonflies, are six flying fish. His attention is drawn to their brief appearance, not the circling sharks (to which man seems to be accustomed). What does Homer want? What are flying fish? The possibility of escape? Freedom?
Organized by Stephanie L. Herdrich and Sylvia Yant and hosted at the National Gallery in London, the Met’s exhibition is the largest review of Homer’s career since the 1995 retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It’s a knockout.
Not ignoring the northeastern subjects with which Homer is most identified – his paintings and watercolors from Maine, Catskills and Gloucester, Massachusetts – Herdrich and Yant emphasize the work he did in places further south along the Gulf Stream – including the Gulf Stream – including and the Bahamas. – along with some made in England.
“Crosscurrents” coincides with the release of a model biography – “Winslow Homer: The American Passage” by William R. Cross, which demonstrates that Homer emerged as a narrator of great power and subtlety in the period – 1860s – when America rushed around to tell the right story .
The “right story” always seems clear from a distance. The story of America had to choose – obviously! – the one who stopped slavery and finally honored the story of the founding of the country: that all people are created with equal rights to freedom. But at that time everything was turbulent and murky.
The mast of the nation has burst. The hurricane carried him out to sea. More than 600,000 people had to die in battle before the Proclamation of Liberation won, and yet black people were only allowed to enjoy a “brief moment in the sun,” as WEB Du Bois christened the reconstruction.
By the time Homer wrote The Gulf Stream in 1899, white supremacy propaganda was rewriting the history of the Civil War (which Homer witnessed as an artist of war). Confederate soldiers were glorified, and the reconstruction was listed as a tragic mistake. The rent of convicts expanded the practice of slavery, multiplied lynchings and a flood of racist, dehumanizing stereotypes, spread in popular culture.
Homer was attentive to all of this. He was in Boston in 1860 when Frederick Douglas was forcibly evicted by 50 police officers after telling a large crowd that “the freedom of all mankind was written in the heart by the finger of God.” He survived the Civil War. He twice crossed the Atlantic Ocean and traveled up and down the Atlantic coast. Thus, he painted various aspects of racial relations over several decades.
Examples in the Met show include “Cotton Gatherers,” one of dozens of sympathetic images of female workers that Homer has made during his career (Cross calls him a “protofeminist”); Meta’s own “Dress for the Carnival” Meta, a beautiful realistic work of immense subtlety and cultural complexity, written at the end of the reconstruction; and “Near Andersonville,” of which Cross writes, “Never before has an American artist placed an attractive black woman at the center, alone, a vessel of hope for his country.”
The culmination of these works, the curators represent the “Gulf Stream”. Of course, this is how history viewed it. Alain Locke, known as the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance, said the “Gulf Stream” “broke the tradition of cotton and the back porch” and “began the artistic emancipation of Negro-themed American art.” Contemporary black artists, including Kara Walker and Carrie James Marshall, have paid tribute to the work.
When asked by an employee of his New York gallery to describe the Gulf Stream, Homer replied: “I am very sorry that I wrote a picture that requires some description.” But he didn’t leave it there. He took care to express two things clearly: first, he knew he was drawing. “I’ve crossed the Gulf Stream ten times,” he wrote, obviously delighted, “and I need to know something about it.” Second, that if he were an illustrative narrator, he would not be one of those to wrap heavy things in beautiful bows.
Homer told the gallery owner (his pen was imbued with sarcasm) that he could tell “inquisitive schoolchildren” who want to know about the Gulf Stream that the unfortunate Negro, who is now so stunned and battered, would be rescued and returned to his friends and home and always live happily ”.
Thus, when the Gulf Stream was a commentary on the plight of black people in the south – who found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea, their eyes fixed on fleeting freedom – Homer did not want to give false hopes. Rather, he wanted viewers to “draw their own conclusions”.
Even more, I think he wanted to draw the sea, some sharks, a boat and a man.
It is interesting to recall in Cross’s biography all the criticism that came across Homer’s path. His manner of drawing, as he read, was crude, schematic, fatally devoid of subtlety. Of course, all such criticism pointed to a larger than Homer’s split in the consensus around art. The Impressionists and other plein airs of France had already broken the old criteria. But the ambivalence that many critics have expressed about Homer is nonetheless instructive. They seemed to feel in advance that the qualities they had singled out for criticism could soon be regarded as merits.
Homer’s work could have been “terribly disgusting,” wrote Henry James, “but there is still something in him he likes,” namely, that “he naturally sees everything along with his shell of light and air.”
At the same time, one critic at The Nation found Homer’s style too harsh, and yet acknowledged that each work “perfectly tells its story: the character of the hero, the appropriateness of the environment, the degree of clarity, type, age, atmosphere, time of day, strength or restraint of color – every study – is a rounded sonnet, self-sufficient.
These qualities – Homer’s keen sense of drama, his “natural” ability to convey the unity of action and atmosphere, and, yes, his “rudeness” (actually just a healthy lack of fuss) – are exactly what sets him apart today as an American. the greatest painter of the 19th century.
Homer’s story can sometimes turn into rhetoric. Large oil paintings such as The Line of Life (1884) and The Stream (1886), which did so much to enhance his reputation during his lifetime, look banal today. But Homer was also praised by his contemporaries for his watercolors, unmatched by any other American artist (except perhaps John Singer Sargen).
Half of the works in “Peretok” are watercolors (six are directly related to the “Gulf Stream”). Many depict southern places where sunlight sharpens Homer’s sense of color, and tropical fertility encouraged his brilliance of foliage. (Homer’s palms almost deserve their own show.)
One of the most beautiful works of the exhibition is a close-up watercolor, a watercolor of five oranges growing on a tree. The design is asymmetrical, possibly influenced by Japanese aesthetics. The effect (orange versus green, with blue shades, slight scents of orange blossoms that provide olfactory decant) sings a piercing freshness.
It is also a reminder that Homer’s narrative, and his illustrator’s taste for drama, and his occasional forays into poetic metaphor, have everywhere been tempered by the enchanted sensuality, the physical pleasure of being in the world that for me is the deepest source of it all.
Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents Through July 31 at the Metropolitan Museum. metmuseum.org.