Winslow Homer, Force of Nature to the National Gallery review: what an extraordinary artist

Winslow Homer, Force of Nature to the National Gallery review: what an extraordinary artist

Winslow Homer, Force of Nature to the National Gallery review: what an extraordinary artist

Northeaster, 1895, reworked in 1901 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Northeaster, 1895, reworked in 1901 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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

Yet, as this fascinating exhibit makes clear, Homer has a lot, including an interesting version of England. Right now, he’s on the radar because of his American Civil War paintings and his subsequent depictions of former slaves give a glimpse into how emancipation worked in human terms.

In fact, if there’s one image worth a visit at this exhibit, it’s A Visit from the Old Mistress, where a former slave owner visits his former slaves. It is a masterful exercise in euphemism, utterly devoid of sentiment, with three women of color glaring at their former owner, an upright and unrepentant figure. When you think about what could have been made of that subject, Homer’s image is explosively contained.

Indeed, Homer’s portrayal of black Americans looks surprisingly understated. In Dressing for the Carnival, a man in a carnival costume is sewn into his fabulous outfit, surrounded by two women and a group of children. The gestures of the women are distinctive, with a fierce-looking woman chewing on a clay pipe. Children are adorable, but poor, barefoot and dignified. He who knows now the truth about the behavior of these individuals, but Homer’s treatment seems scarce and truthful.

A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876 (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC)

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 is little grandiose in his war paintings, although there is a nobility in the prisoners of the front, 1866, which show the surrender of Confederate prisoners, while the figure of a sniper, 1863, in a tree, his attention focused on its goal, the barrel hovering on a branch, is finely composed.

The real surprise of the exhibition, however, are the images from England; she spent just a month in London and a full year and a half in Northumbria, in the North Sea fishing village of Cullercoats. Apparently the place attracted artists and tourists, but it seems far less charming than the Breton villages where the French Impressionists painted. But from this unfavorable position, Homer drew some of his more amazing jobs than him, with fishermen and lifeguards battling the elements. The Gale shows a tough fool striding along a windswept beach with a child strapped to his back: it gives the working class a dignity without feeling.

He gravitated to the sea, as Homer did, and there are memorable Bahamian paintings, of which the most famous, on the posters, is The Gulf Stream, which shows a darkly exhausted black sailor lying leaning on the deck of a small boat, snapped. the mask, looking away from a sailboat on the horizon, while the sharks circled around him. If ever a painting evokes a story, this is it.

The Gulf Stream, 1898 (The Art Institute of Chicago)

The Gulf Stream, 1898 (The Art Institute of Chicago)

But for my money, Homer’s darkest and most impressive works are those of a raw nature he painted at the end of his life, holed up in Maine. The low, dark profile of the towering cliffs of Cape Trinity, the River Saguenay, the moonlight, is pure Wordsworth. As for the Winter Coast, with a barely distinguishable hunter perched on a snowy slope, looking at it is cold.

What an extraordinary artist he is. Truly a force of nature.

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

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