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Winslow Homer, Force of Nature at the National Gallery: remarkable

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unny, isn’t it, how Britain can be so completely dominated by US popular culture, yet one of the best-known American painters is unknown here? That painter is Wilmslow Homer, and if you’ve never heard of him, neither, dear reader, had I. There was an exhibition of his marine paintings in the Dulwich Picture Gallery not long ago, but other than that, he’s unfamiliar.

Yet as this fascinating exhibition makes clear, there’s a lot to Homer, including an interesting take on England. Right now, he’s on the radar because of his paintings from the American Civil War, and his subsequent depictions of former slaves give an insight into the way emancipation worked out in human terms.

In fact, if there’s one picture that warrants a visit to this exhibition, it’s A Visit from the Old Mistress, where a former slave owner visits her former slaves. It’s a masterly exercise in understatement, entirely unsentimental, with three black women looking sombrely at their former owner, an upright, unrepentant figure. When you think what might have been made of that subject, Homer’s image is explosively contained.

In fact, Homer’s depiction of black Americans seems strikingly sober. In Dressing for the Carnival, a man in carnival costume is getting sewn into his fabulous outfit, surrounded by two women and a group of children. The gestures of the women are distinctive, with one fierce-looking woman chewing a clay pipe. The children are adorable, but poor and barefoot, and dignified. Who knows now the truth of these individuals’ deportment, but Homer’s treatment seems spare and truthful.

A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876

/ Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

He was famous as a Civil War artist and spent time with the Union Army. There’s little that’s grandiose about his war paintings, though there’s a nobility about the Prisoners from the Front, 1866, showing the surrender of Confederate prisoners, while the figure of a Sharpshooter, 1863, in a tree, his attention focused on his target, the barrel balanced on a branch, is finely composed.

The real surprise of the exhibition though are the pictures from England; he spent just a month in London and a whole year and a half in Northumbria, in the fishing village of Cullercoats on the North Sea. Apparently the place was a draw for artists and tourists, but it seems way less glamorous than the Breton villages where French impressionists painted. But from this unpropitious location, Homer derived some of his most striking work, with fisherwomen and lifeguards battling the elements. The Gale shows one tough nut striding along a windlashed beach with an infant strapped to her back: he endows the working class with dignity without sentiment.

He gravitated to the sea, did Homer, and there are memorable paintings from the Bahamas, of which the most famous, on the posters, is The Gulf Stream, showing a grimly exhausted black sailor lying propped up on the deck of a small boat, the mask snapped, looking away from a sailboat on the horizon, while around him, the sharks circle. If ever a painting conjures up a story, it’s this.

The Gulf Stream, 1898

/ The Art Institute of Chicago

But for my money, the bleakest and most awe-striking of Homer’s works are those of raw nature that he painted at the end of his life, holed up in Maine. The dark, lowering outline of the massive cliffs in Cape Trinity, Saguenay River, Moonlight, is pure Wordsworth. As for the Winter Coast, with a barely discernible hunter set against a snowy slope, it makes you feel cold looking at it.

What a remarkable artist he is. A force of nature indeed.

National Gallery, from September 10 to January 8; nationalgallery.org.uk

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