Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Chapter 10: Hidden Beneath the Surface: Atlantic Slavery in Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream

The Gulf Stream (1899) by Winslow Homer

In Chapter 10 of Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images, Peter H. Wood examines North American artist Winslow Homer’s famous 1899 painting, The Gulf Stream. Homer’s masterpiece is set in the Atlantic between Cuba and North America, with a distant ship and an ominous storm in the background. A solitary black man, adrift on a small boat, is surrounded by sharks—a powerful visual echo of the Middle Passage. Beside him are stalks of sugarcane, the plant whose profitability led to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade in the Americas. Here, Wood reveals the complex resonances of this important image, created in a time when many in the United States were struggling with the legacy of slavery.

For Homer, the loss of his domineering father brought both sorrow and relief; it also brought recollections of his mother’s death fourteen years earlier. She had been closer to him in temperament than his father was and more important in his development as an artist. Shortly after she died in 1884, Homer made the first of many trips back and forth across the Gulf Stream. On this initial journey to Nassau and Cuba—less than a year after his mother’s death—the artist sketched key elements that would later figure in The Gulf Stream—black sailor, rudderless boat, dark storm, circling sharks. A later watercolor, apparently dating from 1898, shows additional details that all hint at loss and death: the broken timbers, the wooden cross, the coffin-like hatch, the limp shrouds and the waves lapping over the gunwale of the lifeless hulk. Homer’s finished oil captured the modern loneliness and “drift” that was a common element of fin de siècle malaise. But it also expressed an inner isolation, a personal identification with a figure buffeted by recurring storms and hidden in a deep trough in the waves, too far from nearby shipping lanes to be noticed or rescued from his ordeal. Red flecks in the water hint at recent death; the isolated figure may not have been alone when his odyssey began. 

So on one level, the image that Homer painted while living on the coast of Maine echoed his personal straits as the century drew to a close. But on other levels, The Gulf Stream hinted broadly at the African American condition, both present and past. Indeed, some of the symbolism is not quite so “unobtrusive” as Hugh Honour has implied, and it says something about the powers of denial in American culture that viewers have been so slow to make sense of what the picture sets before them. In his book on visual representations of slavery, entitled Blind Memory, the British art critic Marcus Wood has wisely observed: “When we try to look at the inheritance of Atlantic slavery, what we are capable of seeing remains to be seen.”

Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo is available in hardcover. It is also available in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the slavery studies collection for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.

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