Peter H. Wood
Weathering the Storm:
Inside Winslow Homer's 'Gulf Stream'.
The University of Georgia Press,
128 pages, $24.95

In my book The Rape of the Masters, I devote one chapter to the critical sabotage practiced upon Winslow Homer’s famous maritime painting The Gulf Stream (1900). Homer’s painting depicts a dismasted sloop bobbing helplessly in storm-tossed waters. Reclining on the rear deck is a shirtless, grim-faced Negro who scans the waters aft as a school of angry-looking sharks circles the boat. Asked by some anxious ladies for an explanation of the painting, Homer wrote to his dealer:

I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description—The subject of this picture is comprised in its title. ... The boat & sharks are outside matters of little consequence. They have been blown out to sea by a hurricane. You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate negro who is now so dazed & parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.

Well, the contemporary equivalent of those twittering ladies are the academic art historians who, unsatisfied with the art Homer has given them, insist on populating the painting with various political themes.

The chief villain of my reflections on Homer in The Rape of the Masters is Albert Boime, a professor of art history at the University of California at Los Angeles. According to Professor Boime, Homer’s painting is “an allegory of the black man’s victimization at the end of the nineteenth century.” It has more to do with “the history of slavery in the West Indies” and “America’s imperialist ambitions” than with Homer’s effort to capture a scene from the Caribbean. I thought Professor Boime’s interpretation was pretty extreme—indeed, I thought it was ridiculous. I still do.

But now it’s time for Professor Boime to move over. This year’s prize for the most egregious importation of racial politics into Winslow Homer’s work must go to Peter H. Wood, professor of history at Duke University. I mentioned an article on Homer by Professor Wood in The Rape of the Masters, but now he has come out with a whole book on the subject. Does Homer depict a storm in his painting? According to Professor Wood, “at the heart of this storm was black disenfranchisement.” Is there some rope on the deck of the boat Homer painted? Think noose, think lynching, think “potent emblem of threat and intimidation.” Is there a breaking wave in the near distance? “Like the rope,” the wave has “connotations of racial violence.” What about the “looming whitecap”? The “dry-land meaning” of the word, according to Professor Wood, “is associated … with issues of race relations.” The sharks? They “symbolize” “the transatlantic slave trade.” The sugarcane spilling out of the boat’s hold? Yes, you got it: “sugarcane symbolizes the long and tangled history of New World slavery.” And so on.

Homer thought he had painted a gripping maritime disaster from the Gulf Stream, a dangerous patch of water he had crossed at least ten times. That’s not enough for Professors Boime and Wood, though. For them, this great but famously reclusive, notoriously apolitical artist has to be updated and made to serve in the politically correct ideological campaigns of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Homer’s painting, according to Professor Wood, “deals in subtle and extended ways with slavery, U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean, southern race wars, and Jim Crow segregation.” Homer may have thought that the subject of his painting was “comprised in its title.” Academics like Professor Wood are eager to show him how wrong he was. What a travesty.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 4, on page 82
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