At first glance The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer is an ominous piece of art. Large sharks swarm around a comparatively fragile boat and an even frailer figure. With open mouths and splashing fins, the aggression of these animals is obvious. The turbulent seascape and grey sky overlook these events menacingly, promising to cause injury if the sharks fail. Unpleasantly, Homer litters the deep blue oil paint of his sea with red, as if alluding to the potentially bloody fate of the lonesome sailor.
Some critics have tried to further this chilling imagery by interpreting the fishing boat itself as a symbol of death. While the open hatch of the boat has similarities to a coffin and the crumpled sail has similarities to a shroud, the fishing boat also has an ebony cross on its bow and ropes fit for lowering a body.
Yet, upon closer reflection it becomes clear that this initially terrifying scene is misleading. Notice how the lonely sailor does not bear an expression of fear, but rather one of acceptance and endurance as he lays back in his fishing boat, resting on his left arm.. Meanwhile, the small but definite outline of a large ship on the left hand side of the horizon goes unnoticed.. In a situation that would naturally bear witness to a ‘great struggle’ between man and nature, Homer’s resigned sailor emphasises the absence of this battle, and the brave acceptance of his fate.
Ultimately, if Homer did mean to use the fishing boat and its components to symbolise death, he only did so in an effort to highlight the mans indifference to it. For closer inspection also makes clear that what appear to be ropes are actually sugar cane, and what appears to be an oncoming storm is in fact a storm retreating (subtly pointed out by the fact that in an oncoming storm, sharks retreat to the bottom of the ocean). In this way, all of the elements that initially appear so ominous (the storm, the sharks, the ropes) are actually testiments to the sailors continued survival.
The Gulf Stream therefore encapsulates one of the captivating themes of the work of Winslow Homer – a theme which would go on to influence generations of American painters; man’s neutral, direct, and stoic relationship with the harsh wilderness of the world. Importantly, to portray this theme using a man of colour was Homer’s way of emphasising that this brave quality was found amongst all men, regardless of race.