Winslow Homer: Conflict and Ambiguity
By Bobbie Leigh
“Every person has little secrets and privacies that are not proper to be exposed even to the nearest friend,” observed Ben Franklin.
The new Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster exhibition. Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents ,on view through July 31, 2022, presents almost 90 of the artists paintings and watercolors, but we learn no “little secrets about the man. Dubbed “a painter of conflict,” he kept no journals, burned most of is correspondence, never married and seems never have had a companion.
What we do have a testament to Winslow Homer’s artistic gifts and his unfailing attention to the issues that were shaping this country from the Civil war onwards. His paintings tell the story of a society struggling to heal the wounds of a divisive age.
Homer (1836-1910) is best known for his paintings of turbulent seas, basically ocean landscapes. New to many viewers will be his luminous watercolors, idyllic scenes of Florida, Bermuda, and the Caribbean from about 1889-1890 when he sought refuge from harsh New England winters. Here is a new palette— vibrant colors, lighter brushwork, and as one amateur painter said: “In these later works, I can learn more about watercolors than anything I’ve studied previously. No one can paint brilliant sunlight like Homer.” The artist clearly relished the tropical landscape in contrast to the harsh climate of his final home in Prout’s Neck, Maine.
Homer’s travels to Cuba inspired one of his most iconic paintings, The Gulf Stream, which according to the curators alludes to the conflict between humankind and nature. It depicts a bare- chested man sitting alone in a small boat with a broken mast, threatened by gape-mouthed sharks in an ocean flecked with blood. We can barely make out a massive waterspout in the distance. Possibly, it alludes to the legacy of slavery and American imperialism. Or is it about a man reconciled to his fate in the threatening Atlantic currents with no help in sight. In the far left you can spot a ship under sail heading away from the desperate fisherman. There is nothing in the painting that suggests his rescue.
Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents reconsiders the artist’s work through this lens of ambiguity and conflict. “By focusing on the theme of conflict across his art, it raises timely questions about Homer’’s significance and appeal, encouraging a fresh understanding of his deeply thoughtful approach to depicting complex social and political issues of his era — many of which remain pertinent today,” says Max Hollein, the Museum’s Marina Kellen French Director.
Stephanie L.Herdrich, exhibition co-curator and Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, emphasizes the cross-currents theme. This exhibition highlights Homer’s continuing relevance of universal themes: “ …human beings’ struggle with one another, with nature, and with morality,” she says.
The impact of the Civil War on a young Union sharpshooter perched in a tree is a vivid example of the ambiguity and questions of morality often found in Homer’s work. Is the soldier a killer or a terrified kid who has been taught to use a new sort of gun equipped with a telescopic sight? Will he shoot an unarmed combatant? Again, it’s left to the viewer to decide.
Another riveting Civil War painting is Prisoners from the Front which depicts a group of captured Confederate soldiers held prisoner by a Union officer. As Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw narrates in the audio guide: We see this war “as having been a conflict amongst equals… Amongst American men who were really more similar than they were different.”
Ambiguity and story telling abound throughout the galleries. The curators demonstrate that examining the artist’s work through the lens of conflict is an exceptional way to gain a deeper understanding of Homer’s work. He was an artist who encapsulated the struggles that dominated our country in his time and our own.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently, she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.