More than a century after his death, Winslow Homer (24th February 1836 — 29th September 1910) continues to surprise, stimulate and spellbind. The man has been called the greatest American artist of the 19th century. Without a doubt, he is also one of history’s foremost maritime artists, an epithet made more significant by the fact that he was largely self-taught.

Homer’s power as a marine artist can be seen in his iconic oil painting of 1899, The Gulf Stream (pictured above). The work was based on studies done by Homer during two trips to the Bahamas. It shows a black man adrift at sea on a boat with a broken mast, surrounded by menacing sharks. The sense of desolation and abandonment in an unforgiving sea is heightened by the ghostly image of a sailing ship on the horizon.

For sure, one can interpret Homer’s masterpiece in various ways. In his book Weathering the Storm: Inside Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream, American historian Peter Hutchins Wood goes as far as to suggest that the painting is emblematic of the struggle for emancipation of blacks in general and of African-Americans in particular. Maybe so, but The Gulf Stream really transcends time and space. Homer has made an eloquent statement about man’s struggle with the universe, despair and hope, resistance and acceptance. It is the stuff that great art and literature is made of.

It is telling of Homer’s artistic genius that he can be dramatic without being hammy. His seascapes wonderfully capture the beauty as well as the power of the sea. Looking at them, one gets a sense of immediacy, a feeling of the here and now. Some of his paintings have a kind of countryside charm, as when he depicts a couple dancing in the moonlight by the seashore or boys wading in the sunlit water.

Summer Night, oil on canvass (1890)

Boys Wading, watercolour and gouache (1873)

Clearly, this is one artist who loved the outdoors and ordinary people. His mindful use of light to create atmosphere and mood is reminiscent of the works of Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla. Homer had one huge asset which he acquired in his early days as a lithography assistant and magazine illustrator: strong draftsmanship. It is a quality that is immediately noticeable in his rendition of boats and human figures.

Yachting Girl, black crayon, pencil and white gouache (1880)

All great art boils down to controlled angst. Winslow Homer evidently had more than a small share of the angst. In addition, he had skillful hands, a clear vision and the power of empathy. Like the Dutch master Vincent van Gogh, he was a loving spirit. Little wonder that his art endures. ~Barista Uno


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