Resurfacing Winslow Homer’s most elusive painting

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899, oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 49 1/8

WINSLOW HOMER loved a good repoussoir: Locking the foreground and background into a taut tug-of-war charged his small paintings with titanic vigor. Rocks, waves, boats, and leaping fish bound toward the viewer, while some kind of natural force draws the eye back into the painting. That push-and-pull is emotional as well as compositional: We do not know whether to sympathize with or ridicule his subjects.

What, then, are we to make of the repoussoir in Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream, 1899: a dark, red-flecked wave swelling in the foreground and teeming with criss-crossing sharks? Based on sketches and watercolors made during the artist’s visits to the Bahamas and Florida in 1884 and 1898, the work is the centerpiece of “Crosscurrents,” one of the largest reconsiderations of Homer in a lifetime, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Maybe the sharks in the foreground are placed there to repel querulous viewers—Homer wanted the painting to be seen from a distance of twelve feet—and yet you can’t help but get sucked in.

What to make of this painting of a recumbent young Black man on the rear deck of a derelict fishing boat, mast-less, floating in stormy, sunstruck tropical waters between sharks and flying fish? Currents pull the helpless vessel out to sea, where a waterspout and a ship loom on the horizon. The dark wave laps toward us. The sailor casts his gaze off to the right, appearing distracted. If these menacing sharks pose such an existential threat, why does the figure look away so passively? Neither wholly terrifying nor absurd, the painting poses more questions than Homer wanted to answer. Pressed to offer an explanation of the painting, Homer sardonically replied, “The boat & sharks are outside matters of very little consequence. They have been blown out to sea by a hurricane,” insisting that the subject was the current itself, not the human-interest story of the imperiled boatman.

View of “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents,” 2022, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

Few paintings are fishier than The Gulf Stream, and as much as Homer hated to, he was obliged to say more about this painting than any of his other works. “I think this is the last picture I shall ever paint for fun,” he wrote in 1899 before submitting The Gulf Stream to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts a year later. There the painting met mixed reviews, with one critic calling it “a unique burlesque on a repulsive subject,” and suggesting Smiling Sharks as a more apt title. Unsold, the canvas returned to Homer’s studio, where he tinkered with it over several years. He wrote, “I have painted on the picture since it was in Philadelphia and improved it very much (more of the Deep Sea water than before).” In the final version (along with the “deep sea water”), Homer added a ship on the horizon as a possible sign of rescue. While Philadelphia audiences considered the subject a joke, visitors to his gallery in New York found the painting too bleak. When it was eventually purchased by the Met, after the jury of the National Academy petitioned the museum to do so, accolades soon drowned out dissenting voices. The humor and ambiguity detected in those first impressions was tamped down in favor of locating The Gulf Stream in a Romantic tradition of disasters at sea involving sharks and storms.  

In the last century, The Gulf Stream has been celebrated as a compassionate and dignified representation of a Black subject. The preeminent Harlem Renaissance critic Alain Locke credited the painting with breaking with “the cotton-patch and back-porch tradition” of anti-Black stereotypes and beginning “the artistic emancipation of the Negro subject.” Later interlocutors have interpreted its symbols of racial capitalism—sugarcane, ships on the horizon and “blacks in shark-infested waters”—as evidence of Homer’s affinity for Black people and concern for their plight. Peter Wood and Albert Boime have been foremost in this line, the latter viewing “Homer’s besieged fisherman” as “an allegory of the black man’s victimization at the end of the nineteenth century.” This perspective reappears in many recent responses to “Crosscurrents.” For the New Yorker’s Claudia Roth Pierpont, “The Gulf Stream intensifies the artist’s racial focus even as it universalizes its sailor’s plight”; for the New York Times critic Roberta Smith, its “fatalistic protagonist and finned predators . . . serve as a metaphor for the unrelieved obstacles and threats for Black people and especially for Black men, that remain crushingly pertinent today”; for Mark Dery, writing in Hyperallergic, the painting is a “parable about American democracy in rough seas, menaced on all sides by white supremacists, the imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade, the election of opportunistic demagogues like J. D. Vance by right-wing billionaires like Peter Thiel, the assault on congress from within by nihilist trolls like Marjorie Taylor Green, the terrifying metastasis of a Punisher cop culture accountable to no one and brutally hostile to Black and brown people and anyone to the left of the Proud Boys.” Attentive as these current responses are to the painting’s contemporary resonances, they shed little light on what The Gulf Stream may have meant at the turn of the twentieth century, to its maker and to the audiences of his day.

Homer wanted the painting to be seen from a distance of twelve feet—and yet you can’t help but get sucked in.

It is hard to guess what Homer had in mind when painting The Gulf Stream. We want to see pathos in this representation of the vulerable fisherman, and we wonder about his fate. It is an image that is freighted with suspense, the outcome forever uncertain. “You can tell [the] ladies,” Homer wrote contemptuously, “that the unfortunate negro who now is so dazed & parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.”

J. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on), 1840, oil on canvas, 36 x 48

In much of the writing on The Gulf Stream, Smith and Pierpont’s texts included, the scattered flecks of red dotting the waves in the foreground have been interpreted as blood, sparking a Romantic-humanist reading wherein we connect to the plight of the boatman. Seeing blood has that effect: Llike a fetish, it alludes to some traumatic process not seen. Faced with Homer’s tropical sharknado, we may recall such bloodily sublime precursors as John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark, 1778, and J. M. W. Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840. These paintings have been summoned over and over, from the first reviews of The Gulf Stream that accompanied its exhibition in 1899 to its eventual purchase by the Met in 1906. More recently, curator Stephanie Herdrich has suggested that “by evoking one of Turner’s most revered paintings . . . Homer revealed his ambition for The Gulf Stream and made a bid for his legacy within the Western art-historical tradition.” This may be so, but Homer did so as a Realist, at a pointed distance from the Romantic idiom of Turner. He saw Slave Ship as early as 1872. Yet The Gulf Stream lacks the moral passion and expressive turbulence of Turner’s canvas, and it is improbable that the red in the foreground and throughout the painting denotes blood. More likely, it is seaweed.

“Typically light brown,” according to Stephen Leatherman, professor of coastal science at Florida International University, “but sometimes red in color,” sargassum seaweed is common in the Gulf Stream. Blood doesn’t float on water; it sinks, dissolving into the liquid, as is seen in the dark cloud that obscures Watson’s mangled leg in Copley’s treatment of an actual shark attack. In Turner’s subjective reimagining, the frothy crimson tide could be reflections of the bloodred sky, divine fury over an historical act of monstrous cynicism: The captain of a slave ship jettisoned his cargo to save the vessel, recouping the insurance claim on the African lives lost at sea. Homer in fact mentioned Turner’s Slave Ship in an 1899 letter, dismissing the drama of enchained legs floating in the foreground as “impossible.”

Winslow Homer, Defiance, Inviting a Shot before Petersburg, 1864, oil on panel, 12 x 18

Jennifer Greenhill and others have explored the way that humor was used and received in Homer’s day, probing the subversive irony and deadpan humor in his early paintings of the Civil War. His later work continues within the burlesque tradition, adopting “the forms and strategies of the thing it ridicules,” evoking Turner, for example, in a playful deflation of authority. But burlesque also relates closely to contemporaneous tropes of minstrelsy in the nineteenth century. As personified by the ragged “Jim Crow” character, Black abjection was codified through a mode of comic performance, one in which sympathy and ridicule were both at play. One of the most popular forms of entertainment for Northern and Southern audiences before and after the Civil War, minstrelsy surfaces throughout Homer’s work. In Defiance, Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg, 1864, for example, a bug-eyed, banjo-playing minstrel figure is placed, presumably as a bit of comic relief, in an otherwise grim wartime scene. Homer soon shed the cartoonishness for more realistic and, to his credit, nuanced representations of Black Southerners. Cotton Pickers, 187; Uncle Ned at Home, 1875; and Dressing for the Carnival, 1877, have been cited as more multivalent treatments of African Americans, but minstrelsy never fully left. Uncle Ned, for example, is titled after a popular Stephen Foster song from 1848 about a devoted slave. Homer’s close relationship with Lewis Wright, a formerly enslaved man from Virginia employed by the Homer family at Prout’s Neck in Maine, has been cited as evidence of the artist’s antiracist sentiments. This may be so, but then we must also contend with surviving private caricatures in family letters in which Wright is reduced to a minstrel-like Zip Coon figure, theatrically affecting joyful obedience to the family patriarch’s absurd commands. These private correspondences testify to the deep well of minstrel imagery from which Homer drew throughout his life.

Winslow Homer, Channel Bass, 1904, watercolor and graphite on white wove paper, 11 1/4 x 19 3/8

As can be seen in his watercolors produced around the same time as The Gulf Stream, there is a distinctly anti-Romantic strain in Homer’s tropical work. In 1904’s Channel Bass, painted on a winter sojourn to Florida, a fish is suspended against a crystalline blue wash, with droplets of water soaked into the block standing for some sort of perturbed activity beneath the surface. The fish seems frozen in one last gasp of vitality, the ibis red lure dazzling against its gray cheek, before certain death. A couple of discordant details are delineated by Homer’s brush: Bottles pollute this Floridian waterway, seen in the upper left and submerged in the sandy bottom of the lake, and the fish in question is “foul-hooked.” Embedded within what might be considered a beautiful watercolor to nonanglers is a sign of a messy catch for fellow fishermen. Such ironic undercurrents run deep through Homer’s work.

Winslow Homer, After the Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899, watercolor and graphite on wove paper, 14 5/8 x 21 3/8

In one of Homer’s watercolor sketches for The Gulf Stream, the artist places a shark perilously close to a similarly tilted boat. Here, the fisherman’s gaze is directed down at the marine predator, his pose suggesting, if not alarm, then something more akin to distanced concern. That distance is increased in the finished painting, the immediate drama diffused. In the contemporaneous Shore and Surf, Nassau, 1899, red, brown, and gray seaweed covers the beach and streaks the waves (as in Gulf Stream), Homer’s realist sights not set upon the pathos of impossible floating clumps of blood, but on the current itself. In After the Hurricane, 1899—, often mistakenly interpreted as a coda to The Gulf Stream (it’s a different boat, and the men wear different pants in each)seaweed flecks the waves and sand, and the tragic outcome of a disaster is treated with a bizarre sense of calm. If Homer’s tropical oil traffics in what Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw has called, in reference to other works by the artist, “tropes of Black indolence,” After the Hurricane treats Black abjection as a foregone conclusion, aestheticized but unchallenged.

Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning (Halibut Fishing), 1885, oil on canvas.* 30 1/4 x 48 1/2''.

As is evident in the works chosen for “Crosscurrents,” gravid drama is reserved for his white mariners. In such canvases as The Life Line, 1884; The Fog Warning, 1885; The Herring Net, 1885; and Eight Bells, 1886, clothed sailors battle against nature, using technology and expertise to prevail over stormy gray seas. No such heroics are available to Homer’s Black fishermen, not in Gulf Stream nor in other paintings, in which they dive for sponges and turtles in the Bahamas, toiling for tourists. While it may be unfair to judge those who died in 1910 by today’s expectations, we risk flattening Homer’s work by emphasizing his affinity for Black subjects over a complacent presumption of white supremacy.

The Met purchased The Gulf Stream in 1906. It was the first painting by Homer to enter the museum’s collection. The prominence of the work in Homer’s oeuvre and its visibility at the Met has granted this troubling picture a remarkable legacy. The Gulf Stream’s ambiguity, that push-and-pull of concern and condescension, humor and horror, has made the work a potent touchstone for contemporary artists.

Kerry James Marshall’s 2003 update of Gulf Stream places two middleclass couples in a likewise askew boat, this one sailing off into a placid horizon. Nautical knots and a cordless radio signify an ease and mastery denied to Homer’s sailor. In contrast to the source image’s solitary stranded fisherman, Marshall multiplies his figures and puts them in stylish clothes; Stacy Lynn Waddell removes them altogether in her The Gulf Stream (after Winslow Homer), 2013. Glitter-covered sharks swim before an empty boat. Formally, glitter repels by sparkling, just as sharks are both beautiful and terrifying, repellant repoussoirs themselves. On Waddell’s boat, a banner bearing muted hues of the red, black, and green of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag lies slack as a hopeful portent, revising the narrative of doom traditionally projected onto Homer’s canvas.

Stacy Lynn Waddell, The Gulf Stream (after Winslow Homer), 2013, burned, branded, and singed paper with watercolor, composition gold leaf and glitter, 33 x 44

Many scholars have assumed that the name of the boat in The Gulf Stream—“Anna,” with a home port of “Key West,” painted in the same red as Homer’s seaweed—was added in a later revision of the painting between 1899 and 1906. A surviving photograph from the Homer family archives at Bowdoin College, dated December 5, 1899, shows that the name and home port were in fact part of Homer’s original conception. At the time, Key West was one of the biggest and most diverse port cities in the county, akin to New Orleans or Manhattan, the first northern stop of what was quickly becoming an exodus of Bahamians fleeing poverty in the Caribbean. The name of the boat also serves as a point of departure for Kara Walker, who transmutes Homer’s scene into a vignette found in the basin of her Fons Americanus fountain for London’s Tate Modern in 2019. Walker’s version of The Gulf Stream retains Homer’s composition, collapsing the space between shark and sailor, but changes the name of the boat to “K. WEST,” a multivalent reference that recalls Kanye West and perhaps also R. Mutt. One can’t help but also summon the sign under which David Bowie posed for the cover of Ziggy Stardust, a London-based furrier on Heddon Street. Such puns, intentional or not, invite comparisons and conspiracy theories that link Homer and Walker, Bowie and Kanye, Africa, Europe, England, Key West, and the Caribbean in a transtemporal, trans-Atlantic passage that far exceeds the racialized Romantic or realist idioms of Homer’s time.

Winslow Homer, The Turtle Pound, 1898, watercolor over pencil, 14 15/16 x 21 3/8''.

Today, Homer’s apparent indifference to the fate of the fisherman caught in the currents has engendered the opposite: We look past the shark-filled wave to the boat, and see the sailor. Regardless of what Homer thought or didn’t think about his subject, men like this sailor lived, fished, and died along the Gulf Stream in a postbellum society that still enshrined racialized peonage and poverty. After slavery was abolished in British-controlled Nassau in 1834, Southern Florida became a destination for many Bahamians. By the time Homer began painting The Gulf Stream, for example, Miami, incorporated in 1896, had the second-largest African American population in the United States, the majority of whom which had recently arrived from the Caribbean. In this “Magic City,” they found work in construction, stone-carving, farming, fruit-picking, dredging, and laboring along Henry Flagler’s newly built Florida East Coast Railroad connecting Miami to the Florida Keys, completed by the time the Met purchased Homer’s work. One-third of Miami’s voters were Black, but this was changing as Southern Democrats assumed control of legislative politics and imposed Jim Crow laws on a formerly enfranchised, politically active population. Such collective social histories are submerged in Homer’s aloof depiction of one man’s perilous encounter with nature.

The seaweed seen throughout The Gulf Stream now plagues south Florida and Bahamian beaches more and more, another catastrophic result of climate change and the environmental despoliation hinted at in the bottles of Channel Bass. We will see much more of it in the future, and perhaps then, another dimension to The Gulf Stream—embedded in Homer’s repoussoir—will assert an urgent place in our imagination.

Ted Barrow is a writer and art historian living in San Francisco, CA. He is finishing his doctorate at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

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