Hidden Depths

Winslow Homer took watercolors to new levels. A Chicago exhibition charts the elusive New Englander’s mastery

Searching for new ways of seeing, Homer settled in Cullercoats, England, where he created heroic views of his neighbors (Four Fishwives, 1881) in watercolor. (Scripps College, Claremont, CA, gift of the General and Mrs. Edward Clinton Young)
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"These aren't just pretty pictures," says Cikovsky. "There's always more going on in Homer's work and you have to be alert to this. He can put something almost sinister into a beautiful landscape."

Homer believed that it was the viewer's job to discern hidden layers of meaning. He never explained his intentions and became furious when anyone asked about them. "I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description," he fumed when his New York dealer asked for an explanation of The Gulf Stream, the famous oil depicting a sailor adrift on stormy seas, his sloop dismasted (above right). "The subject of the picture is comprised in its title," Homer explained. "You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate Negro who now is so dazed & parboiled will be rescued & returned to his friends and home & ever after live happily."

Finished in 1899, The Gulf Stream was nearly 15 years in the making, longer than Homer devoted to any other project. This oil painting resulted from a series of watercolors Homer began in 1885, after his first visit to Florida and the Bahamas. He crossed the Gulf Stream for the first time that year and may have seen or heard about a shipwreck there. He started to elaborate upon the experience in watercolors.

The first watercolor of "The Gulf Stream" series, known as Sharks, or The Derelict, portrays an abandoned sloop with sharks circling; another called Shark Fishing, finished about the same time, introduces human interest, a pair of young Bahamian men towing a thrashing shark behind their small boat, which is dwarfed by the predator. A later watercolor, probably from 1899, shuffles these elements—the listing wreck, the black sailor sprawled wearily on deck, a mammoth shark reaching for the stern—into a design that begins to look like Homer's final vision for the oil painting. In its last iteration, he sharpens the drama: the sailor has lost his shirt and hat, a waterspout has boiled up behind him and the single shark of the last watercolor has become five sharks churning around the boat. The sailor, as if beyond caring, looks listlessly away from the sharks, which cavort through waves already flecked with red.

Although acknowledged as one of Homer's most powerful artistic statements, The Gulf Stream was not the sort of art you would hang in the living room, which may be why it sat unsold at M. Knoedler & Company in New York for several years, much to Homer's dismay. "I realize that this small business of mine is of little value to you," Homer complained to the dealer in November 1906. "You are willing to sell & I am ready to paint but I no longer paint for nothing." Homer continued fuming until December, when The Gulf Stream was shown at the National Academy of Design, bowled the judges over and was soon bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $4,500—one of Homer's best payments yet. Bigger checks would follow.

Even as he aged, Homer continued to work both in watercolor and oils, each to its own purpose. The same artist who coolly summoned sharks and doom for The Gulf Stream also created luminous watercolors from the tropics, conjuring the eye-stabbing light and rustling palms of the Bahamas, the mountains of steamy cumulus piling over Key West, the crumbling languor of a hot street in Santiago—all attesting to Homer's omnivorous range, his sure grasp of optical effects and his mastery of color and light.

While his production flagged in later years, there was no sign that his powers of observation or artistic vision wavered. Even after he suffered a mild stroke in 1908, Homer quickly recovered his sight and coordination, resumed painting and tried to reassure his brother Charles by joking about it: "I can paint as well as ever," he wrote that summer. "I think my pictures better for having one eye in the pot and one eye in the chimney—a new departure in the art world."

At age 72, Homer became absorbed by a new project that kept him in Maine for the winter. "I am painting when it is light enough, on a most surprising picture," he reported to Charles in December 1908, "but the days are short and sometimes very dark." The result of this effort was indeed surprising, an oil painting entitled Right and Left. In it, he places two goldeneye ducks so prominently in the foreground that they threaten to swarm into the viewer's face. Homer catches them exactly at their moment of death, cut down by a shot-gunner in a boat, barely visible among jagged whitecaps and choppy seas. Homer's sympathy for the startled prey is obvious and in some way prescient. The painting proved to be his last major oil and his final meditation on mortality. He died of a hemorrhage at age 74 at Prout's Neck, with his brothers nearby and the sound of waves crashing outside.

Robert M. Poole is a contributing editor at Smithsonian. He has visited all of the places that inspired Winslow Homer's art.


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