Ever since the George Floyd tragedy, cultural and media institutions have been making up for a century of neglect by spotlighting Black-related art and artists. The relatively staid Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has ridden the wave, first with a new “Afrofuturist” period room, then a dossier exhibition around Why Born Enslaved!, a 19c. bust of a Black woman by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (but why is the work’s original title, Negresse, now labeled “derogatory”?). Now, this week, the Met is opening its major paintings show of the spring, focused on its arguably most important work with a Black subject, Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream. In this effort to nominate Homer, perhaps, as America’s first “woke” artist, the exhibition (contra Roberta Smith’s Times review) unfortunately diminishes Homer’s status.
The crux of the problem is illustrated by The Gulf Stream itself. It depicts a worn-out Black man lying helpless on the deck of a drifting boat, without sail or oar, menaced by a school of sharks in the foreground and a waterspout on the horizon. What did Homer mean, if anything, by painting such a scene? The wall labels give us Homer’s answer to a dealer: “The subject of this picture is comprised in its title.” Working from this intentionally cryptic comment, the Met curator decides that the painting “references complex social and political issues, including the legacy of slavery and imperialism in the wake of the 1898 Spanish-Cuban-American War.” Further, by making this comment and placing sugarcane on the boat’s deck, Homer “made an unequivocal reference to the institution of slavery.” But what is the reference? That slavery, abolished 30 years before, was bad? That it lived on? That it’s surrounded by sharks? That it made Blacks helpless? Homer, as the rest of the exhibition shows, made many images of Black fishermen based on his visits to the Caribbean. And his representations of Blacks are far more realistic and empathetic than his images of whites. Are they all socio-political statements? Or did he happen to find Black men handsome? As for the sugarcane, I’d like a lot more evidence that it was meant as a symbol, in 1898!, of slavery. Could it be that Homer wanted to add a dab of color to the bleak composition? Or was sugarcane, an easy source of instant energy, a normal provision for such an outing, or a way of suggesting the fisherman’s fate wasn’t hopeless (much as Homer later added a ship on the horizon, although the odds of the two boats encountering each other would seem rather long).
The Met label attaches three Homeric themes to this one work: man against the forces of nature; feelings of isolation and mortality; and a social-political conscience–particularly concerning slavery and imperialism. The exhibition then attempts to relate every one of the 90 works on display to one of these themes. With more than a thousand works in Homer’s oeuvre, it is possible to cherrypick objects that support the show’s premise, but the result is a very dark Homer, missing the happy scenes of children at play, fashionistas playing croquet or promenading on the beach. Running counter to the show’s stated theme is the Met’s obvious desire to display its remarkable collection of Homer watercolors, most of which tell a different story. But nevermind: the same authority that deemed sugarcane an “unequivocal” reference to slavery finds the minute inclusion of a colorful flag to be a comment on colonialism.
Looking at it strictly as an artwork, The Gulf Stream is far from my favorite Homer. The sea is fine, the boat remarkable and the figure compelling, but what’s with those three sharks in the foreground? They are bigger than the boat and two are flashing their undersides, largely out of the water. Perhaps this is what sharks look like, but to modern eyes they are cartoonish. For horror, it is often better to suggest than to show, and I can’t help but think Homer’s picture would be more powerful if we only saw fins rising from the waves. (Interestingly, Copley’s famous painting now at the BMFA, Watson and the Shark, suffers similarly.) When Homer is weak, to my taste, it is because he is melodramatic. His best pictures, such as Eight Bells (which I’ll get to later), radiate calm. Among the worst in this show are Undertow (Clark) and Signal of Distress (Thyssen-Bornemisza), which feature men in mock heroic poses.
The lengths to which the labels go to synch the Met’s works with the exhibition’s themes become clear early on, with the description of Snap the Whip, which could easily be viewed as a carefree vignette of kids playing. They are first described in the label as “an optimistic symbol of the nation’s future.” Their “teamwork and coordination” are “essential qualities for reuniting the nation after war” (albeit seven years after Appomattox). The child at the end, “flung from the chain…hints at the challenges ahead.” Want more freight? The scene is “infused with nostalgia…as the nation was shifting away from its agrarian past toward a future of increased urbanization.”
In another case of selective labeling, the Met displays two close-ups of fish on a line. In one, the label identifies a “harsher reality”: the bass “appears to have been ‘foul-hooked’ (caught outside the mouth).” In the other (Clark), the hook is fairly set, but the label makes no mention of things being fine. A picture of two boys peering into a “sand-swallow” nest is described as a “conflict between humans and nature.” In another watercolor Homer depicts a cockfight, “a notable feature of [Cuba’s] colonial culture.” The label then asks, “Could Homer have intended the watercolor to symbolize the power struggle over Cuban independence,…a prominent issue of debate in the United States.” Anything is possible, as Homer left no notes or descendants, and the curator has leapt into the breach.
Waiting for Dad (Longing) is an unfinished watercolor from Oakland, in which a young boy sits atop an overturned dinghy, looking out to sea. We don’t know what would have gone to the boy’s right, but an oil of exactly the same scene (NGA) shows the boy’s mother holding a young brother(?) and is titled, Dad’s Coming! Nevertheless, the caption for the watercolor leads off, “Imbued with subtle tension regarding parental absence and possible loss…” This seems a lot of psychology to project on a boy with his back to us, the side of his face (all we see) a blank, especially given the view of calm seas and lazy sailboats in the distance.
Speaking of faces, what about my theory that, as good a painter as Homer was, he couldn’t paint faces? When I broached the point with former Newsweek art critic Mark Stevens at Andover a few years ago, he told me I was wrong, that Homer instead wanted his pictures to be universal, if not ambiguous; by leaving faces vague or, more often, hidden, Homer allowed the viewer leeway to project himself into the scene and not be limited by a character’s specificity. Interestingly, there was nothing off in the Black faces Homer painted, but I could point to several examples of white faces looking amateurish at best, among them Perils of the Sea (Clark), Weaning the Calf (Raleigh) and Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River (Met), his last, unfinished oil. Nor am I being selective: he painted very few faces. More typical was To the Rescue (Phillips), in which we see three people from behind, heading off into the storm; or Fishing Boats, Key West (Met), in which three Black faces are blacked out. Maybe Homer had the talent to paint faces; he just got out of practice.
If you can look past the pretentious labels, there are some very good pictures. Homer’s late paintings of crashing surf at Prout’s Neck are nonpareil. My favorite was Early Morning After a Storm at Sea (Cleveland), not for its waves, which are unusually decorative and artificial, but for the pink light of dawn. Even with the surf pictures, though, the labels confound. In Driftwood, Homer’s final ocean scene, a man looks out to sea standing behind a massive, more than 20′-long piece of wood. The label, for some reason, claims that the man is “attempt[ing] to collect” the driftwood, an absurdly impossible reading. From that it says, “the man’s task seems futile,” and it describes him as a “surrogate for the artist facing death” and the many sailors Homer depicted over the years “confronting the enduring power of nature.”
Far and away the best painting in the show is Eight Bells, the jewel of the Addison’s collection and a joy to behold and study, no matter how times one has seen it. Two men look calmly out to sea, probably early morning, although scholars have debated the time. As usual, the faces are obscured, but not unnaturally so; their proximity to the picture plane puts on the deck with them, and even into their minds. Its ties to the exhibition’s themes are not obvious, but the curator is not at a loss: by checking their sextant, the sailors are taking the measure of nature. Or something.