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The sharks are circling

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is famous in the US but not well known outside North America. None of his paintings are displayed in a UK public collection and this makes compelling the current exhibition at The National Gallery. The exhibition’s book details his work and life.


Winslow Homer. The Cotton Pickers, 1876 Oil on canvas 61.2 x 96.8 cm. © Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California. Acquisition made possible through Museum Trustees: Robert O. Anderson, R. Stanton Avery, B. Gerald Cantor, Edward W. Carter, Justin Dart, Charles E. Ducommun, Camilla Chandler Frost, Julian Ganz, Jr., Dr. Armand Hammer, Harry Lenart, Dr. Franklin D. M.77.68.

Sean Sheehan


Homer lived through the Civil War and would have known well that after the war African Americans, though freed from slavery, continued to suffer under a system of apartheid. This comes across in his painting of 1876, The cotton pickers, depicting two African American women working in a field. They are no slave labour but there is little to suggest that they feel emancipated. They are stoic, they endure, they are waiting for the kind of change that has yet to come and they do so in a way that gains the viewer’s respect and admiration.

One of his later paintings, The gulf stream (1899), shows a sailboat with its mast broken off, struggling to remain afloat in storm-tossed waters.

An exhausted Black sailor rests on the deck and looks out to sea while behind him on the horizon a waterspout and another sailing vessel can be seen.

He may not know they are there but he must be aware of the sharks menacingly gathering before his fragile boat.

Winslow Homer. The Gulf Stream, 1898 Watercolour on paper 28.8 x 50.9 cm. © The Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection 1933.1241.

At one level, the painting is a narrative picture of a storm at sea and this is how Homer referred to his work: “The subject of the picture is comprised in its title… The boat & sharks are outside matters of very little consequence… the unfortunate negro who is now so dazed & parboiled will be rescued & returned to his friends and home & ever after live happily”.

Homer did not like to offer explanations of his work and this may explain his nonchalant dismissal of any deeper significance to the painting.

It did not satisfy Alain Locke, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, who saw the painting as “an allegory of black man’s victimization at the end of the nineteenth century”.  As with The cotton pickers, there is no passivity in the picture and the sugar cane on the deck is indicative of the plantations that continued to employ Blacks as if they were slaves.

In his last years, Homer became increasingly engaged with painting the ocean as a force of nature and human beings became less and less central to his work.

Winslow Homer. Sharpshooter, 1863 Oil on canvas 31.1 x 41.9 cm. Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Gift of Barbro and Bernard Osher, 1992.41. Image courtesy of © The Trustees of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

There is a good chapter on this in the book/catalogue. His early paintings, responding to the reality of a civil war in his own land, are quite different in this respect. They focus on individuals and a powerful example of this is Sharpshooter (1863), showing a rifleman in a tree and taking what is probably deadly aim at another human being. The care he is taking in balancing to commit an act of impersonal murder is a disturbing image of human behaviour.

Winslow Homer force of nature”, by Christine Riding, Christopher Riopelle and Chiara Di Stefano, is published by The National Gallery.

(Images supplied by the National Gallery press office)

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