The Gulf Stream is regarded by many as Winslow Homer’s greatest painting. The poet Sadakichi Hartmann, indeed, went as far as to describe it “one of the greatest pictures ever painted in America.” Overpowering in its sense of abandonment and desolation, it depicts a solitary boatman on a rudderless, dismasted vessel, threatened by tumbling waves, circling sharks and a looming waterspout. On the distant horizon, a schooner sails past, unseeing and unseen.
While some critics have offered that the painting comments on contemporary racial tensions, others have emphasized its funeral references, noting the death of Homer’s father in 1898. The artist himself thought the painting self-evident, answering one viewer that:
“I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description….I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times & I should know something about it. The boat & sharks are outside matters of very little consequence. They have been blown out to sea by a hurricane. You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate negro who now is so dazed & parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.”
It is perhaps enough to say, as Bryson Burroughs once wrote, that The Gulf Stream “assumes the proportion of a great allegory if one chooses.”