Winslow Homer, an artist of conceptual originality and high-wire technical audacity, once described the historical component of one of his paintings, of a fortified harbor at night, as the “stern facts.” During his long and varied career, Homer (who died in 1910 at the age of seventy-four) painted some of the most familiar images in all of American art. Many people today would recognize his incomparable sporting pictures of leaping trout and drowning deer, or his heroic seascapes of hard-bitten fisherfolk and intrepid rescuers in violent storms. His dazzling watercolors of the tropics have had a recent vogue—brushy, highly colored vignettes of palms and poinsettias, with an unerring feel for the possibilities of the medium that recalls the masters of Japanese painting, which recent research suggests he was familiar with. There is often an element of risk in Homer’s paintings, either in the subject depicted or in the medium adopted, as in the do-or-die decisions of watercolor.
Danger is at the heart of a pungent and enigmatic picture like The Gulf Stream (1899), which portrays a bare-chested African-American man adrift in a rudderless boat with a broken mast, amid a choppy sea seething with menacing, open-jawed sharks, and with a threatening waterspout on the horizon. An over-the-top painting like this retains its magnetic hold on viewers, even as scholars continue to debate its elusive meanings. Does the picture have something to say about the embattled status of blacks around the time of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), as some scholars have suggested, or is it simply a naturalistic picture of a fisherman in deep trouble?1 When asked by a baffled prospective buyer for an explanation of The Gulf Stream, Homer, who was famously taciturn, replied, “I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires description.”
But it was as a painter of historical events that Homer first made his mark, and specifically as a recorder of the “stern facts” of the American Civil War. Sent to the front by Harper’s magazine during the fall of 1861, he was embedded, as we would now say, with Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. At a time when photographers, like those hired by Mathew Brady, required long minutes for their exposures and hence “still” subjects, artists like Homer were counted on to convey the movement and suspense of the battlefield.
Homer was thirty-one when he first traveled to Virginia, and almost as new to the job as the young recruits he sketched. He had moved to New York two years earlier, in 1859, after completing an apprenticeship with a lithographer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, an importer of hardware, had hoped for a more prestigious education for his sons when he installed them in a house near the Harvard campus. Charles Homer “wiggled through Harvard,” as he put it, but his younger…
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