With war raging in Ukraine and the U.S. still divided, we continue to recognize iconic Americans whose art now seems more relevant than ever. The Morgan Library and Museum celebrates Woody Guthrie, the influential songwriter and recording artist who spoke out for the average worker. (Read the review.) An exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art focuses on Winslow Homer, his fascination with struggle dramatically portrayed in his oil paintings and watercolors.
“Winslow Homer is one of the best known and most beloved American artists,” said Max Hollein, the Museum’s Marina Kellen French Director. “By focusing on the theme of conflict across his art, this exhibition will raise timely questions about his 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.”
“The Gulf Stream“
The centerpiece and inspiration of Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents is “The Gulf Stream” (1899, reworked in 1906; The Met) which shows a Black man clinging to a small boat that is being tossed around in an angry sea while hungry sharks circle. Homer, who lived on the coast of Maine and made many trips to the Bahamas, was captivated by the power of the ocean. The painting continues to invite interpretation with recurring themes including slavery, the battle between humans and nature, and mortality.
Max Hollein, the Museum’s Marina Kellen French Director
Hollein spoke at the press opening for the exhibition, along with Sylvia Yount, exhibition co-curator and the Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in charge of the American Wing, and Stephanie L. Herdrich, exhibition co-curator and Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture. While many of the paintings came from the Met’s collection, Hollein thanked the many private collectors who generously lent their own paintings to the exhibition.
“The Gulf Stream” is given a prominent place in the show, followed by other sections that explore the themes in Homer’s art. “War and Reconstruction” focuses Homer’s work as a “special artist” documenting the Civil War for Harper’s Weekly. Paintings in this section include “Sharpshooter” (1863; Portland Museum of Art), considered his first important oil, and “Prisoners from the Front” (1866; The Met). Homer was concerned with the racial struggle that followed the war, depicting Reconstruction-era Virginia in “Dressing for the Carnival,” featuring newly emancipated Blacks.
While there are many oils in the exhibition, the watercolors are spectacular, particularly those of tropical destinations like the Bahamas, Cuba, Florida, and Bermuda. Cultural issues, however, continue to crop up, for example, in “The Garden in Nassau” (1885; Terra Foundation for American Art), which laments the exclusion of Blacks from Bahamian society.
The ocean, however, was never far from Homer’s mind. The oils that capture the power and danger of the seas are so powerful, one might need some Dramamine to truly take in the life force of these scenes. Don’t miss: “The Northeaster” (1895, reworked 1901; the Met) and “The Life Line.”
Homer’s preoccupation with nature is front and center in two oils. In “Fox Hunt” (1893; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), a fox is threatened by a flock of crows. Homer’s perspective has the viewer identifying with the fox, increasing the tension.
“Right and Left”
“Right and Left” (1909; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), “is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and innovative paintings in the history of American art,” according to Met’s notes besides the work. Two goldeneye ducks face imminent danger, a puff of smoke and a flash of light can be scene from a sportsman in a canoe. It’s man vs. nature, capturing the split seconds between life and death.
In the press release accompanying the exhibition, Yount stressed Homer’s ability to speak to cultural issues through his work. “This exhibition will foreground Homer’s potent oil and watercolor paintings of the Atlantic world against his wider oeuvre, challenging the popular conception of him as the ‘Yankee’ realist who painted mostly Northeastern subjects,” she said. “In doing so, we hope to encourage a more nuanced interpretation of his overall production, sophisticated artistry, and keen ability to distill complicated issues.”
Herdrich added: “This focused examination of Homer’s brilliant career will highlight his continuing relevance in his exploration of universal themes, including human beings’ struggle with one another, with nature, and with mortality. We look forward to introducing Homer to a new generation as we ask fresh questions about his art.”
Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through July 31, 2022
Photos by Charlene Giannetti