All pictures were taken by the author during his visit to The Met Fifth Avenue, New York. Texts sourced from exhibit label scripts.
Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents
The Cotton Pickers is Homer’s most monumental representation, in form and content, of life for the newly emancipated in Reconstruction-era Virginia. Two sensitively rendered laboring women appear poised between their past, present, and future. The work’s complexity–of figural characterizations–is grounded in themes of conflict and struggle as well as those of uncertainty and opportunity. Its title and the women’s portrayal suggest a post-slavery economy in which little had changed for many.
In the years after Civil War, Homer often explored women’s new roles in society, especially their access to leisure. This representation of a quintessentially modern subject–women at the beach–confounded critics when it was first exhibited, in New York in 1870. Some viewers focused on issues of decorum and class, criticizing the women’s state of undress–even though they are wearing typical bathing costumes in the era–and one described them as “exceedingly red-legged and ungainly.” A disquieting sense of voyeurism and mystery imbues the scene, amplified by the strong light and strange shadows, suggesting deeper meanings below the surface.
Homer often represented the arduous labor of North Atlantic fishermen, based on this experiences at Cullercoats and amplified by observations made around his home on the coast of Maine. In one series of paintings, he explored the inherent dangers of fishing in the Grand Banks, the rich waters southeast of Newfoundland. The meeting of these currents provides a fertile environment for fish, but it also makes the area one of the foggiest places on earth. This painting is infused with tensions as the solo fisherman gazes toward the safety of the distant schooner and considers his ability to reach it before the fog, looming on the horizon, settles.
Many of Homer’s images of the Bahamas evoke the idea of the islands as a paradise created especially for tourists. Enjoying local fruits was perceived as a fundamental luxury of the visitor experience. This vibrant watercolor, a rare still life by the artist, offers a complete sensory experiance–ripe citrus, bright green leaves, and fragrant blossoms are bathed in warm sunlight.
Homer’s attention to inclement weather in this watercolor distinguishes it from the more idyllic tropical images he produced during a previous trip to Bahamas, in 1884-85. Dark clouds threaten, while several tall palms are lashed by violent winds. This detail combined with the tempestuous weather may evoke the geopolitical turmoil elsewhere in the Caribbean that year, specifically in Cuba and Puerto Rico. The weather events depicted here and in Homer’s images of storms off the coast of Maine represent important precursors to the turbulence of The Gulf Stream.
In Homer’s epic saga set along the Gulf Stream, a Black man faces his possible demise on the deck of a distressed boat, while threatened by sharks and a watersprout. This painting is the culminating expression of various deeply personal and universal themes that Homer explored across his career, particularly the conflict between humans and the natural environment. The Gulf Stream is also rich with geopolitical implications. Homer acknowledged the expanded imperial ambitions of the United States beyond North America with the addition of key elements. Sprayed across the ship’s deck are stalks of sugarcane–the Carribean commodity central to the economy of empire and directly linked to the swift ocean current of the title, which enabled its trade, and the devastating history of transatlantic slavery. Homer interweaves these complicated narratives in a painting that confronts human struggle, personified by a stoic survivor, against the relentless power of nature.
Appendix: 19th and Early 20th Century European Paintings
Thaulow (Norwegian, 1847-1906) earned great success with his depictions of the rivers and byways of Northern France. This canvas shows the village of Picquigny, near Amiens on the river Somme, where the Norwegian painter worked for several weeks in the late autumn of 1899. The composition adopts a downward vantage point that emphasizes the eddying water and its ever-changing colors, reflections and illumination.
Despite the seemingly rapid brushwork and the summary treatment of detail, this painting was preceded by at least two drawings and an oil sketch. This is Manet’s last portrait of his wife; it was painted at Bellevue, a suburb of Paris, where they spent the summer of 1880.
In addition to the girls’ manifest charm, Renoir undoubtedly counted on the notoriety of Mendes’ bohemian parents to gain attention: their father was a Symbolist poet and publisher, and their mother was the virtuoso pianist Augusta Holmes. Renoir completed the commission in a matter of weeks and immediately exhibited the large canvas in May 1888, but the response to his new manner of painting, with its intense hues and schematized faces, was unenthusiastic.