Winslow Homer: a chronicler of American turbulence

And even decades after the Civil War, the dangers of other wars resonate in Homer’s work, especially in Spotlight over the Port Entrance, Santiago de Cuba (1901) painted in the aftermath of the Spanish- American painting of 1898. The painting’s sense of foreboding derives from the eerie darkness that surrounds the monumental Spanish-built fortress and long mortar cannon that dominate the canvas. The searchlight that illuminates the port is however neither Spanish nor Cuban; he belonged to the US Navy. Cuba itself seems less important in this image than the two powers that are the United States and Spain which are at war for it.

It is perhaps not by chance that Homer suggested to his art dealer that this painting could well marry The Gulf Stream. The two tables are linked by the sugar cane trade between Cuba and the United States. Sugar cane is the cargo carried in the beaten ship of the Gulf Stream. America’s victory in the Spanish–American War served to ensure smooth sailing for American companies, no matter how strong the winds.

A dangerous passage

And always at the center of this exhibit, both physically and metaphorically, is The Gulf Stream. At the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, viewers see for the first time the canvas, which dates from the end of his career, hanging on the wall of another gallery in the distance. This insight stays with you as you move from gallery to gallery, through evocative scenes of Civil War soldiers and then the dire consequences of slavery. You arrive in Homer’s sun-kissed Caribbean seascapes, then feel all the more battered by the deadly storm waves that assert themselves in other works set in communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. and along the Gulf Stream itself.

It is therefore the passage traveled by the black sailor in the Gulf Stream. For Cross, this figure is a sort of Everyman that is both American and black. Homer “put his Everyman in a position where the outcome is pretty uncertain,” Cross comments. “There is great hope – as evidenced by his staring at the flying fish – and also the presence of the ship which I find rather ghostly. It would in some ways feel like part of a dream rather than a real ship. The threat that comes from the storm or the sharks is not hidden. And yet, this ordinary man does not seem to me to have given up hope. He is posed with a sense of honesty about the circumstances, and is equally concerned of its own survival.

As a painting, Cross says, The Gulf Stream “must be viewed in the same context as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and other great works of art and literature.” But as a physical force of nature, the Gulf Stream also held additional significance to Homer. “I think ultimately Homer believed in an order that he saw in the Gulf Stream,” Cross said. “It was a system, and unlike the diabolical system of slavery, the Gulf Stream was a natural system that brought with it both danger and beauty.” In this exhibition, all these aspects are exposed.

Winslow Homer: Cross Currents is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until July 31; Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is at the National Gallery, London, from September 22 to January 8, 2023.

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