Larger realities

One of Winslow Homer’s most striking paintings shows three women standing on a shoreline after bathing. The main figure bends over to wring water from her hair. “Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide)” (1870) is an everyday scene of working women at leisure – we are in Massachusetts, not Arcadia. But the painting hits distinct notes of strangeness, not only in its crystalline light and long shadows, but also in the reactions of two of the participants. A small terrier springs back in alarm at the sight of the woman’s dripping hair. A seated companion turns – midway through fitting her shoe – to watch the wringing with cool intensity.

The painting appears in the first room of the National Gallery’s formidable exhibition, Winslow Homer: Force of nature. Early in his career, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Homer gravitated towards subjects of this kind: daylit, sparsely composed and quotidian. If the other great American painters of the age sought effects by intricate means – James McNeill Whistler embracing the genre of the nocturne, John Singer Sargent revelling in complexity – then Homer was a minimalist. Of the three he remains the least known outside America.

By contrast with those contemporaries, Homer didn’t train or settle in Europe. He was closer, in this respect, to George Bellows – often considered a purely American artist because he never went abroad. Yet Homer was anything but provincial. The curators of the exhibition – Stephanie L. Herdrich and Sylvia Yount in New York, Christopher Riopelle in London – demonstrating how he ranged in place as much as in theme. Over five galleries we see how the particularity of his imagery carried a breadth of social observation and a depth of psychological nuance.

Before he turned to painting Homer worked as a wood engraver for illustrated magazines including Harper’s Weekly. It was in this capacity that he was sent to the front lines of the Civil War in 1861. His first significant oil painting was “Sharpshooter” (1863), based on his experience of camping with the Union Army at Yorktown, Virginia. The small canvas shows a rifleman perched on the branch of a tree, holding his gun level to his eye. The contemporary detail of the telescopic viewfinder aligns with the modernity of Homer’s cropped view. At the National Gallery the work is pointedly juxtaposed with “Defiance, Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg” (1864) in which a Confederate soldier, having climbed to the top of a ridge, challenges a Union sharpshooter to kill him.

With such images Homer ceased to be a merely anecdotal artist. Realist in tenor, his scenes gesture towards larger realities than those contained in the frame. In “Prisoners from the Front” (1866), painted in his New York studio after the war, a Union Army general confronts a captured division of Confederate soldiers. The scene is emblematic not only of the recent national schism, but also – in the reciprocal gazes of the opposing officers and their horizontal placement in the composition – of hope for the levelling of differences.

We move, in the opening gallery, from images of the war to those of a fragilely unified America. “A Visit from the Old Mistress” (1876) was made when Homer returned to formerly Confederate Virginia to investigate the aftermath of emancipation. Adopting the same friezelike structure as the picture of prisoners, it shows an elderly lady in widow’s black standing to face three Black freedwomen and a child. The moment of reckoning internalizes – rendering in a narrative form – Homer’s own grappling with the state of his nation in the era of Reconstruction. The shifting, uncertain status of Black Americans was a subject to which he returned repeatedly.

The uncertain mood of his early pictures would prove to be a defining aspect of his art. “The Veteran in a New Field” (1865) is a hauntingly ordinary image of “after the war”. A man, turned away from the viewer, reaps the harvest in a field of wheat. A Union Army jacket lies discarded on the ground, almost invisible. There is no sententious point to be made. To the extent that symbolism occurs it is embedded in the real life of the scene. The charged vacancy of the painting – felt in the dominant blueness of the sky and the sheer wall of wheat – prefigures Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” (1948).

Homer spent ten months in Paris from 1866 to 67. This soujourn receives only passing mentions in the wall texts. But as Riopelle notes in the catalog, the paintings Homer made at this time were “small and unadventurous”. The artist was probably already well acquainted with modern French art (the heroic peasantry of Jean-François Millet, the stark naturalism of Gustave Courbet), which had started to appear in Boston and New York in the 1850s. Increasingly a freer, “modern” style entered his work – a brushy finish akin to that of Manet, whose 1864 painting of warring American battleships he probably saw when it entered a private collection in Philadelphia. English art, above all the work of Turner, was a parallel influence.

More, though, than his absorption of European styles, what made Homer modern was his refusal of narrative resolution. When asked by a collector to explain “Promenade on the Beach” (1880), which depicts two young women wandering on a coastline beneath a lowering gray sky, he wrote: “They are looking at anything you wish them to look at, but it must be something at sea & a very proper object for Girls to be interested in … Hoping this makes everything clear.” The statement was characteristic of his reluctance to encapsulate.

At the National Gallery this painting appears diagonally opposite “The Cotton Pickers” (1876), a more focused view of two Black women traipsing through a blooming field. Their gazes, like those of the girls on the promenade, are inscrutable. But the contrast between the two pictures is profound. The cotton pickers are working women, presumably in receipt of subsistence wages, but their freedom questionable. Jim Crow laws had begun to be enacted in the 1870s, enforcing segregation.

A new sombreness entered Homer’s work of the 1880s. In 1881 he traveled to England. From London he went to the fishing village of Cullercoats, above Newcastle upon Tyne, where he stayed for nineteen months, painting mainly in watercolour. Cullercoats was known as an artists’ colony, but its real appeal seems to have been the implacability of its North Sea setting, along with the stoical, ritualized lives of its inhabitants. When Homer exhibited his English watercolors in New York, a critic observed: “He is a very different Homer, from the one we knew in days gone by.”

The memory of Cullercoats pervaded his paintings over the remainder of the decade, merging with the scenery of Prouts Neck, the remote peninsula in Maine where he lived from 1883. The foreboding expressed in earlier works frequently swells into a mood of disaster. “The Life Line” (1884) imagines an unconscious woman being winched to safety on a “breeches buoy” pulley system, over the top of crashing waves—her life hanging in the balance. A similar ambiguity permeates “Undertow” (1886), in which two men haul a pair of drowned or nearly drowned women through the water. The figures are Grecian in their heft and musculature. (Homer had seen classical statuary at the British Museum in 1881.) And, like classical nudes, the men avert their gazes, turning away or looking down to deny us access to their reactions. The covert oddness of Homer’s earlier beach scenes has burgeoned into something dark and morbid, verging on melodramatic. The female “protagonist” has become an insensate victim – she could almost be a wraith of gothic fiction, if it weren’t for her gleaming, palpable physicality.

Homer now started to travel frequently from his home and studio at Prouts Neck – not only to New York and Boston, but to Florida, the Caribbean and Bermuda. The watercolors he made in the Bahamas are among the highlights of the show. Their colors mark a departure from the morose hues of many larger canvases. In pictures such as “Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda” (1899) and “A Wall, Nassau” (1898), the play of light on whitewash or the jagged serrated glass on the top of a wall acquires a glistering intrigue. Not that Homer’s “travel sketches” were retreats into aestheticism. The compound wall evinces the racialized social divisions of the Bahamas. Another watercolor shows a Caribbean man bathing in the sea; behind him a fluttering Union Jack reminds us of the Bahamas’ status as a British Crown Colony.

The climactic work of the exhibition is “The Gulf Stream” (1899, reworked by 1906). One of his larger canvases (although he never aspired to the scale of history painting), it has often been regarded as Homer’s masterpiece, including – one senses – by the artist himself. A Black sailor lies marooned on a listing boat whose mast has snapped off. The man’s face is unreadable. Stalks of sugar cane, synonymous with slave labor, lie across the deck. Sharks glide in front of the boat with almost cartoonish menace. Here, more than anywhere, Homer’s modernity is on parade. Like a Victorian painter he supplies narrative details – the red of the water (seaweed, probably, rather than blood), the naming of Key West on the boat’s stern – but the import remains unclear. Will the man be saved? Late in the process of composition Homer added the background detail of a steamship, but this serves, if anything, to magnify the sailor’s isolation.

The artist’s own progressive isolation seems to have shaped the late course of his art. The final gallery reflects the near-expulsion of human figures from Homer’s seascapes of the 1890s. “Northeaster” (1895) is a prime instance of Homer’s tendency to edit: originally the scene included two figures crouching on rocks. Between 1896 and 1900 he painted them out, replacing them with the spray of crashing waves.

Homer was keenly aware of his place in history. He took a close hand in selecting engineer works for the collection of the Metropolitan Museum and helped to the acquisition of “The Gulf Stream” by Roger Fry, then a curator. For the century and more since his deathHomer has been regarded as the quintessential American artist. The signal achievement of this exhibition, in its simplicity and concision, is to lift him out of the aggrandizing narratives that have long surrounded him – to remove some of the varnish of canonicity. The thematized groupings are undogmatic; The catalog entries are pared and accessible. This is a show that presents Homer’s art on its own terms, confirming him not only as a painter of modern life, but also as a modern artist.

James Cahill is a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His first novel, Tiepolo Bluewas published in 2022

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