A chronicler of US turbulence

And even decades after the Civil War, the dangers of other wars resonate in Homer’s work, especially in Searchlight on Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba (1901) painted in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The painting’s sense of foreboding derives from the eerie darkness that surrounds the monumental Spanish-built fortress and long mortar canon that dominate the canvas. The searchlight casting its light on the harbour is neither Spanish nor Cuban, though; it belonged to the US Navy. Cuba itself seems of less importance in this image than the two powers of the US and Spain that are warring over it.

Perhaps it was no accident that Homer suggested to his art dealer that this painting might pair well with The Gulf Stream. Both paintings are linked by the sugarcane trade between Cuba and the United States. Sugarcane is the cargo carried in The Gulf Stream’s battered ship. America’s victory in the Spanish-American War served to ensure smooth sailing for American business – regardless of how wildly the winds blew.

A dangerous passage

And always at the centre of this exhibition, both physically and metaphorically, is The Gulf Stream. At the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, viewers first glimpse the canvas, which dates to the end of his career, hanging on the wall of another gallery in the distance. That glimpse stays with you as you move forward from gallery to gallery, through evocative scenes of Civil War soldiers, and then the fraught aftermath of slavery. You arrive at Homer’s sunny seascapes of the Caribbean and then feel thrashed all the more by the life-threatening storm waves that assert themselves in other works set in communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and along the course of the Gulf Stream itself.

This, then, is the passage traversed by the black sailor in The Gulf Stream. For Cross, this figure is a kind of Everyman who is both American and black. Homer “put his Everyman in a position in which the outcome is quite uncertain”, Cross comments. “There is great hope – evidenced by the fact that he is looking to the flying fish – and also the presence of the ship which I find rather ghostly. It would seem in some ways like a part of a dream rather than a real ship. There’s no hiding the threat that comes from the storm or from the sharks. And yet this Everyman does not appear to me to have given up hope. He is poised with a sense of honesty about the circumstances, and is also intent on his own survival.”

As a painting, says Cross, The Gulf Stream “should be regarded in the same context as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and other great works of art and literature.” But as a physical force of nature, the Gulf Stream also carried additional significance for Homer. “I think that ultimately Homer believed in an order which he saw in the Gulf Stream,” Cross says. “It was a system, and unlike the evil system of slavery, the Gulf Stream was a natural system that brought with it both danger and beauty.” In this exhibition, all those aspects are on display.

Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 31 July; Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is at the National Gallery, London, from 22 September until 8 January 2023.

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