Winslow Homer's Out of Control Subject: The Sea

The sea. It was Winslow Homer's most out of control subject matter.

It has relentless power. Sometimes it's as calm as a glassy plane. Sometimes it's out of control. Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is an artist well known for his artistic quest to capture even the most temperamental moods of the sea.

In his career, the sea was the subject of about 50 completed oil paintings, 130 watercolor paintings, and countless sketches, etchings, and preliminary studies.

His worked on his oil paintings in his studio. His watercolors and sketches, however, he frequently created en plein air, outdoors balanced on a rock or a sandy shore. In the summer of 1884, he sailed on a schooner at Cape Ann to sketch while at sea. He wanted to capture the powerful scene of the Gloucester fishing fleet. (The Gloucester Harbor is shown above.) He wanted to be in the midst of the scene to paint it with authenticity.

See my essay about having to stand knee deep in snow to paint snow.
It helps to be in the midst of it.

Winslow Homer was a quintessentially American artist. He was considered a "man's man" based on his solitary lifestyle and the powerful imagery of nature in his artwork. His devotion to fishing and hunting underscored his rugged, independent lifestyle.

He was not prone to talking about his painting. He wanted his work to stand on its own.

His seascapes especially were characterized by themes of man versus nature. And, sometimes, nature versus nature.

His style comports with his subjects: out-of-door Americans, big, rough, sturdy, and true-hearted men, sailors, soldiers, pioneers, fishermen. farmers, 'in their habits as they lived'-the stuff out of which the nation is made. He understands them as thoroughly as if he had made them.

The Art of Winslow Homer, Frederick W. Morton, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Apr., 1902), pp. 42

William Howe Downes, a biographer of Homer's, described a scene in 1894 when Homer exclaimed, "I’ve got an idea!" He ran into his studio, grabbed his painting gear and raced down to the rocky shore to paint by moonlight. In about five hours the painting (below) was finished. The lighthouse on Wood Island, to the south of Prouts Neck, Maine, is barely suggested by a tiny red mark in the horizon of the outcropping. (It is about a quarter of the distance from the right of the painting along the horizon. But it is difficult to see.)

Born in Boston, Winslow Homer was reared in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a modest, middle-class home. He started an apprenticeship at age 19 with a Boston lithographer. This led to becoming skilled in drawing and illustration. He was particularly adept with people and began work as an illustrator for popular magazines including Harpers Weekly among others.

He soon became a Civil War correspondent to capture images from the battlegrounds and sent them to Harpers Weekly to document the progress of the Union Army. We would say that he was “imbedded” with the Union Army.

We need to step back for a minute and consider the significance of an illustrator imbedded in an active war zone. As it is today, it can be dangerous, and I presume, some things can never be unseen.

He needed to assess the scene where dying men were tangled on the battlefield among dying and thrashing horses. Almost twice as many horses (1.5 million) were killed in the war as humans.

An illustrator needs to process exactly what lies before him. He must observe, make choices and decisions, then preliminary sketches, and then the final drawing. You need to stay engaged while absorbing and cataloging what’s going on in grisly detail.

Homer’s illustrations frequently documented important historical moments in the war, such as the following painting of Prisoners from the Front surrendering to a Union Soldier.

The war dragged on, but at the end of it in 1866, the allure of “The Continent” was calling. Winslow Homer made his first of two trips to Europe in 1866; his second was in 1881.

Inside the Bar shows a woman buffeted by the strong wind off the sea in Northern England. “This woman is not made of the stuff that is swept away. . . . She is transformed by the terrible beauty of the time and place; her stride is magnificent; she is part of the storm itself."

France and England, especially Paris and London, were intense incubators of ideas. They were magical scenes of music, dancing, poetry, soirees, and frantic searches to find models for your artwork and to find studio space to work in.

Paris held the magnetic prestige of working shoulder to shoulder with renown artists and writers. Some of the most well known names included:

  • Honoré de Balzac
  • Charles Baudelaire
  • Émile Bernard
  • Mary Cassatt
  • Thomas Eakins
  • Victor Hugo
  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
  • Édouard Manet
  • Claude Monet
  • Berthe Morisot
  • Camille Pissarro:
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • George Sand,
  • John Singer Sargent,
  • Vincent van Gogh, and
  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

These artists and writers were in addition to sculptors: Camille Claudel, August Rodin, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Paris and Montmartre were not like other western arts communities at that time:

“In this bizarre land [Paris in the last quarter of the 20th Century] swarmed a host of colorful artists, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, a few with their own places but most in furnished lodgings, surrounded by the workers of Montmartre, the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolles, sprouting up all over the place, like weeds. Montmartre was home to every kind of artist.”

For Homer the razzle-dazzle of Paris was not the elixir that it was to some, and he was pulled back to his practical, straightforward, Maine-bred point of view. Rather than being overwhelmed by Modernity and the allure of Impressionism, he hunkered down on a plainspoken outlook:

“Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”
Winslow Homer

“The life that I have chosen gives me my full hours of enjoyment.”
Winslow Homer

By 1883 until the end of his life, Homer lived in Prouts Neck, Maine. He made trips to the Adirondacks, Canada, the Caribbean, Cuba, and Florida. His home, his work, and his fascinations were grounded in his studio in Maine. He shielded himself from visitors by posting signs such as “rats and snakes” around his studio.

And, although some have characterized him as a recluse, I have an inkling some that this perceived hermit-like grumpiness was exaggerated for effect. Of course he wanted to protect his solitude, but his ongoing powerful depictions of people required observing people. His sensitivity, and the sensual flawlessness he painted into his characters was incompatible with an angry, cold, curmudgeon. I don't buy into that caricature.

His fixation on the waters off Maine, and the whole Eastern seaboard from Canada to Cuba, focuses our imagination on the volatile personalities and formidable storms of the Atlantic Ocean.

In the above painting of Prouts Neck, Northeaster, Homer removed two figures crouching on the rocky ledge after the painting had already been exhibited. After the adjustment, the New York Tribune appreciated their removal with the ensuing added emphasis on nature. The New York Tribune described the amended simplification as exemplifying "three fundamental facts, the rugged strength of the rocks, the weighty, majestic movement of the sea and the large atmosphere of great natural spaces unmarked by the presence of puny man."

After settling permanently in Prouts Neck, he dove into his feelings about the struggles of man to tame the sea. As in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda in the song from Hamilton, so much of our lives is out of our control. Homer’s work presented his opinion that in his world, the sea determines “who lives, who dies, who tells our stories.” ℗ 2015 Hamilton Uptown, LLC.

The sea provides and the sea takes away.

His seascapes display his virtuosity in the voluminous billows of spray and foam; in the colors portraying the depths of the ocean to the transparent teal of looming waves backlit by the sun.

He was a scholar of the tides. Especially the Gulf Stream. It is one of the widest and fastest undersea rivers in the world. Originating in the Gulf of Mexico, it flows along the eastern coast of the United States to Canada, and part of it diverts across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.

From the description of The Gulf Stream on the website of the Metropolitan Museum, New York:

Completed at the dawn of the twentieth century (1899 and reworked in 1906) and during what historians have called the nadir of race relations in the United States, The Gulf Stream is also rich with geopolitical implications. Homer acknowledged the expanded imperial ambitions of the United States beyond North America with the addition of key elements. Splayed across the ship’s deck are stalks of sugarcane—the Caribbean commodity central to the economy of empire and directly linked to the swift ocean current of the title, which enabled its trade, and the devastating history of transatlantic slavery. Homer interweaves these complicated narratives in a painting that confronts human struggle, personified by a stoic survivor, against the relentless power of nature.

Website of the Met, NYC

Through his deliberate decisions to depict humans in peril he shows the fragility of being mortal. He even adds in some paintings, the possibility—but truly the impossibility, of salvation by adding ships in the background that are too far away to help. To ratchet up the direness of the predicament in The Gulf Stream, Homer adds a waterspout in the background and surrounds the tiny boat with sharks and blood in the water.

The Gulf Stream painting itself has been interpreted as a metaphor for the struggles of African Americans after the Civil War. It presents us with the unpredictable obstacles of unseen perils and the power imbalance between man and the sea.

Winslow Homer often includes Black men of African American or Caribbean descent in his paintings. When we look at these paintings, it’s automatic for us to evaluate them from a 21st Century point of view.

But let’s reconsider our vantage point. Homer was a former war correspondent in a racially and politically divided country. He was a gifted observer of mankind and how they treated each other. What do we think may have been on his mind as he painted these scenes and included these Black men in desperate straits?

What is the expression on the fellow in the boat? Acquiescence? Hopelessness? Is it a memory of a beautiful time? A beautiful woman? What has this man been through? What lies ahead?

Homer’s paintings of the sea are personal and poignant. They speak to me.

This is the power of a truly gifted artist, that even these scenes of a Black man on a tiny boat surrounding by sharks in a raging sea, is something I can identify with.

I can be that young, muscular Black man looking over my shoulder into the endless roiling sea. I can be that Black man with only a couple sticks of sugar cane left for my nourishment for possibly the rest of my life. Homer puts me in the boat.

“When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway.”

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