During my visit to London in the same week that Queen Elizabeth was buried, I visited the exhibition on the American artist Winslow Homer at The National Gallery. Nice to finally get an overview of his work. A number of works are world famous for those who investigate depictions of people of colour or Black people in Western art.
Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836. After training with a lithographer, he established himself as a freelance illustrator of periodicals. When the US Civil War began in April 1861, Homer travleed to the front lines, recording Union troops. His career as painter fully launched, Homer spent months in and around Paris in 1867. On his return, he focused on contemporary American life.
This is homer’s most monumental representation of life for newly emancipated Americans. Two labouring women represent a post-slavery economy of subsistence wages in which little had changed for many. An English cotton merchant bought the painting in 1877.
Directly after the Civil War, newly emancipated Americans started celebrating Independence Day as a commemoration of Black Liberation incorporating aspects of Jonkonnu (Caribbean parade). Homer painted it the year federal troops withdrew from former Conferderate states. In the decades that followed, such celebrations of freedom would be suppressed in the South.
In 1883 Homer settled in the coastal peninsula of Prouts Neck, Maine. His new home was cold and inhostitable in winter, so until his death in 1910 he often travelled to tropical destinations. In addition to The Bahamas, which he called ‘the best place i’ve found’, he visited Cuba, Florida and Bermuda.
This 1857 map of the Atlantic Ocean shows how the Gulf Stream current connects many of the locations where Homer explored the central themes of his art – from the Caribbean up the Eastern Seaboard, and across the ocean to Europe.
The Gulf Stream is the setting for many of Homer’s powerful works. He named his most significant Caribbean oil painting after the mighty Atlantic Ocean current.
A sailor faces possible death on a distressed boat. A ship on the horizon allows for the possibility of rescue. Splayed across the deck are stalks of sugarcane, a commodity central to the economy of empire. The swift ocean current of the title enabled both the trade of sugar and the devastating history of transatlantic slavery. Studied, interpreted and reinterpreted by critics and artists, The Gulf Stream has become a modern icon of Black imagery.
In The Bahamas, he focused on the daily lives and labours of the islands’ Black inhabitants. Thes dazzling watercolours suggest a tropical paradise while also hinting at complicated imperial forces and natural threats.
The above text is partly taken from the exhibition text plates.
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