ENDS 8TH JANUARY 2023
TRAFALGAR SQUARE LONDON WC2N 5DN
REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR
Winslow Homer’s paintings, renowned for wild seascapes merit this exhibition’s title at the National Gallery with raging seascapes peppered across this expansive collection and concluding the exhibition with an entire room entitled “Pure Seascapes”. Homer was fascinated by the sea and those that fished its oceans from North America, across the Caribbean, to England’s North Sea.
Homer also painted people with brilliant accuracy, poised as if snapped by a Polaroid and placed upon the canvas. Ordinary people going about their business attracted his attention - cotton pickers, fishermen and children playing on the beaches. In addition, he captures significant historical events. In Prisoners From the The Front 1866, defiant Confederates face a scorning Unionist during the American Civil War. In A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876 newly emancipated Black women face an impassive White employer. In Dressing for the Carnival 1877 and The Cotton Pickers 1876 he paints African Americans as proud yet bemused, noting the imbalance of power across racial lines with consideration.
Unsurprisingly, Homer painted plenty of seamen. He was taken with the plight of English fishermen when he visited Cullercoats in Northumberland, England in 1881 and observed the dangers the cruel North Sea. His paintings draw on the struggles of this fishing community forcefully depicted in a raft of paintings including To The Rescue 1886 and The Life Line 1884. The Fog Warning 1885 shows a strong English fisherman rowing a heavy wooden boat with his catch, an enormous fish, across pounding waves. In Undertow, 1886, Homer paints a rescue at sea, his subjects both male and female are beautiful, classical in their form, muscular with strong jaw lines.
At the turn of the twentieth century Homer went to the Bahamas and Nassau. There he painted in watercolours. There are the occasional peaceful scenes - A Wall, Nassau 1898, and Natural Bridge, Bermuda 1901. But there are plenty of wilder compositions of extreme weather such as Hurricane, Bahamas 1898, Shore and Surf, Nassau 1899 and The Gulf Stream, 1899. Here Homer was taken with the local fisherman, strong Black men defying turbulent storms at sea and circling sharks.
Toward the end of his life, in his seventies, Homer side-lined people as subjects and focussed primarily on the swelling, powerful sea. He spent his last years travelling up and down the East Coast, wisely avoiding the worst of winter. Always revering the sea, he painted its thrashing waves (Northeaster 1895 and Maine Coast 1896) to the very end.
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