America at War with Itself

Sep 13, 2022 | Review

Winslow Homer: Cotton Pickers

The last place I lived in America, before moving to Europe at the beginning of the 1960’s, was a lovely small town, just 12 miles outside of Boston. It was a fantasy place – a pleasant dormitory town for MIT and Harvard. Nothing seemed too sinister in the garden.
I was a romantic child, and much taken with the vaunted history of the city nearby. My favourite book was called Captain John Smith’s Page – I still own it and cherish it despite its egregious errors – and my heroine was Pocahontas.
Thanksgiving was the only holiday my family celebrated, never toasting the achievements of the Pilgrim Fathers, but rather celebrating the generosity of the “Indians”– as they were then known.
It is an irony, not lost upon me, that I am now a British “redcoat”.
It was the end of the 1950’s. At home we listened to Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Leadbelly and the nascent Bob Dylan. We went on marches. Adlai Stevenson was a hero. Eisenhower was the devil. My father learned Russian. The school yard had a fall-out shelter. We practiced sitting under out desks and had nuclear drills. We saw Sputnik go over. My mother was involved in “busing”, a failed attempt to integrate Black children from the urban part of Boston into our privileged suburb where we scarcely saw a Black face without an apron or gardening dungarees.
A statue of Paul Revere graced the town common and school outings were to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, to Plymouth Rock and to Salem. There was a five and dime store and a clapboard ice cream parlor with jukeboxes at every table. A Doris Day movie. My brother played Little League. I learned Modern Dance. The Updikes and the Vonneguts lived nearby. It was American Graffiti, and Couples, the Stepford Wives and Norman Rockwell territory. It was the Cold War. America was complacent and self-satisfied and not (quite) yet at war with itself. We lived in little boxes, on the hill side, little boxes made of ticky-tacky in a dreamworld of Americana, forgetting, up in our Yankee fastness in the north, the worm of race relations devouring it from within in the south. American conscience was not quite clean – segregation prevailed in the South – but the Civil Rights Act had been signed in 1957. Vietnam was only just looming on the horizon.
So, for me, until last week, the work of the Bostonian painter, Winslow Homer (1836 – 1910) was merely an exponent of this enlightened, faintly smug and unimaginative mythic state of America that I thought I knew so much about. I had seen his paintings of middle-class ladies bathing in the sea, and fishermen going about their business in Maine. I knew there were many Black figures in his work – freed slaves, civil war soldiers and cotton pickers – but I associated them with a kind of Gone with the Wind sentimentality. I had quickly walked by them as an adult. I confess that I viewed them merely as competent illustrations of the Civil War, celebrating the emancipation of the slaves. I saw him as a precursor to Norman Rockwell, a chronicler of American dream life, not as a painter of American nightmares.

Winslow Homer: Sharpshooter

Winslow Homer, Sharpshooter, 1863

This show has completely changed my mind. I am humbled by my own prejudice and lack of insight. During the devastating Civil War of 1861-1865, Winslow
Homer was what we now call “embedded” on the Union side. In 1863 he painted Sharpshooter, a chilly depiction of a soldier aiming at his human target with a telescopic viewfinder. Homer described this scene he observed personally, saying that “the impression struck me as near murder to anything I could think of”. Another early painting like Prisoners from the Front (1866), in which Confederate soldiers surrender to the Union Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow is indeed illustrative, but it is crucial to note that Homer was there himself. This is a historical document with a human element that is often missing in a documentary photograph. The experience was lived and felt, and the painting conveys emotion, not only fact. Homer does indeed begin his self-taught career as an engraver and illustrator for Harper’s magazine, but his work develops into a body of paintings that are rich with the metaphor and symbolism which this show does a great deal to elucidate. Known as a competent painter of marine disasters we begin to see that these are also human disasters. His oeuvre continually interrogates whither America? Whither race relations? His work graphically unveils the horrors of modern war.
Relevant in 19th century America. Relevant in 21st century America.

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (Painting: Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 49 1/8 in. (71.4 x 124.8 cm))

In a painting such as The Gulf Stream (1899), a desperate and vanquished man is about to be overcome by a vicious sea, simultaneously threatened by what is (amazingly) called a “shiver” of ravenous sharks. But most importantly he is a Black man lost at sea and this painting is surely a metaphor for human struggle. This is a tormented depiction of the oceanic storm of racial tumult which asks “What is the fate and future of African Americans?”.
Candy stores and jukeboxes and ice cream and mythic America this is not.
He is a painter for our terrible times.

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