Perhaps no other American painting is at once so familiar and so little understood as Winslow Homerâs The Gulf Stream (1899). For more than a century, scholars have praised the artist and yet puzzled over this harrowing scene of a black man adrift in the open sea, in a derelict boat surrounded by sharks. Critical commentary, when it has departed at all from the paintingâs composition and coloring, has generally viewed The Gulf Stream as a universal parable on the human condition or as an anecdotal image of a coastal storm.
There is more to this stark masterpiece, says Peter H. Wood, a historian and an authority on images of blacks in Homerâs work. To understand the painting in less noticed but more meaningful ways, says Wood, we must dive more deeply into Homerâs past as an artist and our own past as a nation. Looking at The Gulf Stream and the development of Homerâs social conscience in ways that traditional art history and criticism do not allow, Wood places the picture within the tumultuous legacy of slavery and colonialism at the end of the nineteenth century.
Viewed in light of such events as the Spanish American War, the emergence of Jim Crow practices in the South, and the publication of Rudyard Kiplingâs epochal poem âThe White Manâs Burden,â The Gulf Stream takes on deeper layers of meaning. The storm on the horizon, the sharks and flying fish in the water, the sugarcane stalks protruding from the boatâs holdâ-these are just some of the elements in what Wood reveals to be a richly symbolic tableau of the Black Atlantic world, linking the histories of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.
By examining the âpresentâ that shaped The Gulf Stream more than a century ago, and by resurrecting half-forgotten elements of the âpastâ that sustain the paintingâs abiding mystery and power, Wood suggests a promising way to use history to comprehend art and art to fathom history.
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