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Winslow Homer: Conflict and Ambiguity

Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda, 1899. Winslow Homer. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

The Gulf Stream, 1899. Winslow Homer. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Sharpshooter, 1863. Winslow Homer. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

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