Winslow Homer, Darwinian Realist by Donald Kuspit

Winslow Homer. The Fox Hunt, 1893. Oil on canvas, 96.5 × 174 cm (38 × 68½ in). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.


In 1863 Edouard Manet (1832-1883) painted The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, “watershed paintings that mark the start of modern art,” and in 1863 Winslow Homer (1836-1910) made his “earliest Civil War paintings,” “anecdotal like his prints.”  They were made for “the new illustrated journal Harper’s Weekly,” where he was “an artist-correspondent”—an eye-witness journalist documenting the war with his sharp eye.  It was a current event, presented as matter-of-factly as possible; there were no allusions to—ironical replays of--classical themes.  The Luncheon on the Grass mocked Giorgione’s traditional The Pastoral Concert, ca. 1510 in the course of updating it, and Olympia turned Venus into a slut.  There is no destructive wit, not to say perverse sabotaging in Homer’s Civil War paintings, portraying the white soldiers, both Union and Confederate, and the black slaves as precisely—dispassionately--as possible.  He was an observer, and a very careful, seemingly neutral one.  There are “hints of modernist abstraction” in the paintings he made in the Caribbean, and “virtuoso brushwork” and “depth of feeling” in many of his seascapes, as scholars have said, but virtually all his works have a documentary, empirical character.  

Informed by meticulous observation, they remain quintessentially descriptive, that is, records of naturally occurring events.  There is nothing romantic about his famously stormy sea—he doesn’t read feeling into it, to allude to Baudelaire’s definition of romanticism, project his own emotions into it to turn it into a symbol of the unconscious—but records its dynamics with the same detachment with which he witnessed and illustrated the human beings caught up in the Civil War.  It is an intellectual detachment, the detachment of a scientist, a revolutionary scientist like Charles Darwin.  In a sense, Homer was more modern than Manet ever thought of being, for Homer’s work was based on an understanding of Darwin’s scientific understanding of evolution, rather than on fashionable wit, like Manet’s.  What looks abstract shows analytic acumen, what looks like virtuosity shows experimental curiosity, what looks like depth of feeling shows insight into inescapable form.  Homer was determined to render the truth of nature—human as well as non-human nature—not to modernize art.  His is not an “art about art”—art in competition with other art, in stylistic dispute with other art--but about indisputable scientific truth.     

The Fox Hunt, 1893, “depicts a flock of starving crows descending on a fox slowed by deep snow”—his most famous “Darwinian work.”  Homer’s works—his Civil War works as well as his “works after nature”—are Darwinian.  The former are Darwinian in spirit, the latter in the letter.  The scholar Charles Colbert argues that “while not ignoring the discoveries of evolutionary science, Homer sought to reconcile them with a more traditional belief in a benign deity who guided human affairs.”  But there is no evidence for that.  As has been said, “there is no claptrap” in his art, “no sentimentality.”  From the Civil War paintings through the seascapes Homer shows himself to be a ruthless, uncompromising observer, describing what he was seeing as precisely as he could, with increasing scientific skill and accuracy, seemingly seeing what he saw up close and as though through a microscope and from a distance as though through a telescope.  He had a sort of double vision, ingeniously fusing the opposites in a singular nuance, fraught with contrasts yet indisputably whole.  All one has to do is look at the water in After the Hunt and Hound and Hunter, both 1892, to see the point.   

Winslow Homer, Prisoners from the Front, 1866. Oil on canvas, 61 cm × 96.5 cm (24 in × 38.0 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

In his Autobiography, Darwin wrote that he “happened to read for amusement Malthus on population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed.”  This was his theory of “natural selection,” sometimes erroneously described as “survival of the fittest,” a misleading characterization as the anthropologist Briana Pobiner remarks, for “here ‘fitness’ refers not to an organism’s strength or athleticism but rather to its ability to survive and reproduce.”  “Survival of the fittest” became the watchword of Darwinism, and in Social Darwinism it came to mean the survival of the socially rather than only naturally fittest, that is, the socially powerful and strong in contrast to the socially weak and powerless.  Social Darwinism has been discredited, but the question that haunts Homer’s Darwinian works—virtually all his works, I will argue—is whether there is an undertow of Social Darwinism—a theory of how society works--in what otherwise read as examples of Darwinian Naturalism, as it might be called—a theory of now nature works.  The Civil War works seem to exemplify Social Darwinism, the North being stronger than the South—more fit for war considered its technological superiority to the South, which depended on slave labor for its work force—while the seascapes seem to exemplify Darwinian Naturalism.  The problem with Homer’s works is not whether the traditional belief in the saving grace of a benign deity subliminally informs them—the saving grace that freed slaves and sailors from drowning—but whether an equally traditional belief that might makes right, not to say that power is its own justification and will be rewarded, informs them.  

However much the standing figure in Defiance: Inviting A Shot Before Petersburg, 1864 epitomizes the power and righteousness of the North his physical fitness—not just for battle but for life—suggests that he will survive the war.  His politics are beside the point of his stance—triumphantly holding his ground whatever the threat to his life.  Noteworthily, he is not readily identified as a soldier—he is not wearing a military uniform, as the seated Sharpshooter, 1863 is.  He wears a blue cap with a red insignia, identifying him as a Union soldier; the standing figure seems to be a civilian, as his clothing suggests.  Both will survive the war because they are fit for life, just as the calmly composed Union officer will in Prisoners From The Front, 1866.  There are four of them, suggesting the Four Ages of Man.  The young soldier with a rifle, standing at attention like a child obeying the commands of an adult—the Union officer—seems to symbolize Childhood.  At the other end of the line of prisoners is a somewhat less dignified figure symbolizing Adolescence.  With a rolled blanket across one shoulder and his hands in his pockets and his tunic casually opened and his floppy hat—hardly a dignified appearance, in contrast to the young soldier with a rifle--he might be mistaken for a hippie, reluctantly drafted into military service.  Next to him stands an old man with a white beard symbolizing Old Age.  He’s not wearing a uniform—he has done his service to society.  He has literally laid down his arms—he holds his hands together—suggesting he is powerless, defeated by life as well as war.  He is a civilian who probably came to the defense of the Confederacy, to no avail.  Standing next to him—the dramatic contrast is startling—is a young Confederate soldier, defiantly upright, his hair long and wild in contrast to the neatly cropped hair of the Union officer.  His right hand is on his hip, a jaunty gesture at odds with the hands of the Union officer, his hands at peace behind his back, as much a symbol of Youth in all its glory as the Confederate soldier, refusing to surrender to reality however defeated by it.  

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899. Oil paint on canvas, 71.4 cm (28.1 in) × 124.8 cm (49.1 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Virtually all of Homer’s works are enriched by allegorical implications, above all the allegory of life and death, which is what such works as Signal of Distress, 1890-96 and The Wrecked Schooner, ca. 1900-1910, among many other of the seascapes are about.  The full length figure in Signal of Distress has the same defiant pose as the standing figure in Defiance:  Inviting A Shot Before Petersburg, suggesting that one needs defiant courage to survive in a society that makes war to the death and in a nature reeking of death—symbolized by the sharks that appear in many of Homer’s seascapes, most famously The Gulf Stream, 1899, 1906.  The work has been interpreted in a number of ways, perhaps most noteworthily as an allegory of the Civil War, the black man at last liberated from the war, its  viciousness—fight to the death—symbolized by the sharks, but at a loss however much he survived it.  Does the work make a mockery of emancipation?  But the alternative could be worse than being helplessly—tragically--adrift on an ocean:  one could be dead and shipwrecked, like the black man in After The Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899.  There are many muscular, strong, white men, able to hold their own against the ocean, able to triumph over death, as in the famous Undertow, 1886 and in Kissing the Moon, 1904 and in Shooting The Rapids, Saguenay River, 1905-1910, but I think that for Homer the black man was most able to do so, to hold his own against the elements, against nature at its most dangerous and indifferent and raw, because he survived the Civil War, held his own and maintained his dignity despite the indignity he suffered by being a slave.  

Homer’s The Bather, 1899, standing naked in the ocean, his physical fitness obvious, his ease with his body, the first ego as Freud said, indicating that he has an ego, and an independent one, and the ego strength to endure whatever situation he finds himself in, is to me Homer’s most Darwinian work, for it makes clear, as all of Homer’s works with blacks do, that he is fit to survive, that he has been selected by nature to survive.  Dare one say he is a kind of Apollo, handsome as only a god can be, just as Aphrodite, who also rose from the sea, is beautiful as only a goddess can be?  Like Homer’s women, his black men are born fit, natural survivors, as the physically strong and strong-willed women in Inside The Bar, 1883 and The Gale, 1883-1893 make clear.  Homer’s black man doesn’t need nautical instruments—technology—to hold his own against the sea, as the white sailors in Eight Bells, 1886 do, but enters it as naked as the day he was born, holding his own in it as his fixed glance suggests.  He is born fit, and with that self-reliant; he doesn’t need technological crutches to help him survive, to hold his own in nature or society, both cruelly indifferent.  And, as Shark Fishing, 1885 suggests, can defy and conquer them the way St. George conquered the devilish dragon, for the dangerous shark symbolizes the evil—inhumanity--of both nature and slavery.  Homer’s black man fearlessly hunts nature’s most dangerous creatures, sometimes on foot, as the black man hunts the turtle in Rum Cay, 1898-1899, or catching him by hand in the ocean and imprisoning him in The Turtle Pond, 1898.  Clearly the black man is a match for any animal—especially the white animal, I suggest, for the turtle with its white belly exposed to the viewer in The Turtle Pond is implicitly the white man, now imprisoned like a slave as the black man was in the Confederate South, his body up for sale as a black man’s body was.  The black man was treated like an animal in the Confederate South; Homer shows the freed slave enslaving the white man, if in the symbolic form of an animal—the turtle, now no longer able to swim freely in the ocean, as helpless as the black slave, unable to live freely in society.      

Winslow Homer, The Bather, 1899. Watercolor and graphite on off-white wove paper, 14 7/16 x 21 1/16 in. (36.7 x 53.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Even hardworking black women, formerly slaves, have a dignity and autonomy and strength—an air of self-reliance--that the white master race lacks, as A Visit From The Old Mistress, 1876 makes clear.  The white Old Mistress symbolizes the defeated Confederacy, its defeat signaling that it was not fit to survive, unlike the young black women, and especially the sturdy young hard working black women in The Cotton Pickers, 1876, formerly slaves but now seemingly working for themselves, as their air of self-confidence suggests.  Virtually all of Homer’s blacks have a strength of character as well as body that not all of Homer’s whites have:  they often are cunning fishermen, as After The Hunt and Hound and Hunter, both 1892 make clear, but they need fishing rods and hunting dogs to help them, and when they hunt bear, as in Bear Hunting, Prospect Rock, 1892, they use rifles.   But the black men hunt fish and turtles with their bare hands—just as the black women pick cotton with their bare hands--suggesting they are more naturally fit than white men, who have to outfit themselves with instruments to do so.  They need help, but the black men can help themselves.

Homer was not merely getting the facts straight—documenting reality—but making a case for Darwinism.  He is depicting the struggle for existence—sometimes a struggle between black and white human beings, sometimes a struggle between two nations, the Confederacy and the Union, and sometimes, however implicitly, between men and women, that is, men who sail the dangerous ocean and women who remain safely at home, sometimes between human beings and animals, whether sharks or deer.  There is a sense of courting danger, taking risks, in order to prove that one is fit to survive—courageously shoot the rapids or ride out a storm at sea.  If one doesn’t, one will fall to one’s death in the sea, as the downward facing duck on the right in Left and Right, 1909 seems to; if one does, one will fly away from the sea towards land, as the duck on the left seems to be doing, with unstoppable determination.  Homer was an accomplished hunter, hunting to prove that he was fitter to survive than the animals he hunted—he killed them, they didn’t kill him.  Blacks were fitter to exist than whites, for blacks survived the Civil War while many whites did not.  Homer was a loner, like the men in The Fog Warning (Halibut Fishing) and Lost on the Grand Banks, both 1885.  Alone with the ocean, he could show the fitness of his art, for artistically struggling with it—raw, undomesticated, wild nature in contrast to the refined, domesticated, garden nature in Monet’s impressionist paintings—he could master it.  

Homer is not comfortable with nature, as Monet’s paintings suggest he is:  his self-contained garden is a somewhat more pleasurable, delightful, restful place than Homer’s restless, dangerous, untamable, intimidating, overwhelming, uncontainable ocean, promising pain with every storm, indeed, with every threatening wave.  His ocean symbolizes fate rather than good fortune, as Monet’s gardens do.  The turbulent surface of Homer’s restless ocean has the look of a raw animal pelt; the peaceful surface of Monet’s gardens suggests a benign, flourishing Mother Nature—certainly Homer’s nature is not mothering (sharks are not flowers)—in all her finery.  Monet’s paintings are feminine and upper-class, Homer’s masculine and working class—his sailors and women are hard at work, struggling to survive, while Monet’s men and women are bourgeois aristocrats with a sense of entitlement to the good life.  I suggest that this psychodynamic difference, echoed in the difference between Homer’s tough-minded cerebral realism and Monet’s tender-minded intuitive impressionism, helps explain the fact that Monet’s paintings are more celebrated than Homer’s, for it is harder to think scientifically about nature than to naively appreciate it, as though it was innocent rather than guilty of crimes against humanity—as though it was always “good” rather than often “bad,” “soft” rather than “hard,” pliable rather than implacable, comforting rather than menacing.  The difference between Homer’s realism and Monet’s impressionism—they were contemporaries—is the difference between American outspoken pragmatism and the French idea of la vie jolie, that is, the pretty life, evident in Monet’s gardens of aesthetic paradise, each a veil hiding the reality of nature, which Homer faced without flinching.  Homer had a sophisticated understanding of death, which was as natural as life.  Monet had a naïve understanding of life, as though there was no death in nature.  The death instinct is alive and well in Homer’s sharks—and also the life instinct, for they are fit enough to survive in the ocean.  Strange as it may seem to say so, Homer’s seascapes, informed by the threat of death, have their important place beside Goya’s Disasters of War, 1810-1820 and Otto Dix’s The War, 1924.  Trooper Meditating Beside A Grave, ca. 1865 is one of the few works in which Homer shows the disastrous consequences of war, but his many seascapes show man at war with nature, struggling to avoid drowning to death in a storm-tossed ocean.  It tests one’s fitness to live, its threatening storms suggesting that one is not.

Winslow Homer, A Bucket of Clams, 1873. Watercolor on wove paper, 29.2 cm × 24.8 cm (11.5 in × 9.8 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Homer’s sailors may be outfitted to survive the storm, but the only individuals—and all of Homer’s figures are distinct individuals—who are naturally fit to survive are the young boys that Homer painted when he turned forty, perhaps in nostalgia for his youth, youth seeming naturally fit rather that struggling to stay fit, as one does as one ages.  The boys on the green grass of the country land in Crossing The Pasture, 1871-1872, Snap The Whip, 1872, and Weaning The Calf, 1875 are not even thinking of becoming men and going to sea when they grow, indeed, not even thinking of growing up and becoming hunters and soldiers—killers of men.  They are more or less carefree, whatever their task, farm boys close to the land rather than adults at sea, struggling to survive rather than taking life for granted.  Homer’s boys are in no danger of losing their lives but so fit and full of life they seem sure to survive whatever the world has in store for them.  They may look out to sea Waiting for Dad (Longing), 1873, or carry A Bucket of Clams, 1873 harvested from the sea, casually noting a dead fish as they do, perhaps a bad omen but none the less seems like a mirage.  They are at home on the land, far from the stormy sea, restlessly agitated with a will and power of its own, indifferent to them, powerless boys carrying out menial tasks or playing.   

Such images of sunlit peace and plenty and warmth are rare in Homer, suggesting nostalgia for a golden age, a mythical time in an imaginary world of peace, prosperity, happiness and health—an optimistic age of health and innocence rather than a pessimistic age of war, death, sickness, suffering and poverty, the conflict-ridden world of hard-working adults struggling to survive in an alien, dangerous, and unpredictable nature and society, a cruel nature and society always suggesting that they will never be fit enough to do so, for Homer’s ocean is apocalyptic, rather than a naïve paradise, like Monet’s garden.  There is something seriously fake and misleading and mindless about Impressionism—it’s a big lie, a hallucinatory placebo—in contrast to Homer’s Darwinian realism.  If art is an imitation of nature, as Plato said, then Homer’s imitation of nature—human nature, self-evident in his slaves, sailors, hunters struggle for survival in society and nature—is truer to nature than Monet’s imitation of nature, which is blind to the fact that “nature (is) red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote, including human nature. WM

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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