This essay was originally published in March 2020.
To mark the occasion of turning thirty, I wrote a painting called The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer. The piece of art, which has turned into a visual mantra of sorts, depicts a man trying to steady the course of his rudderless fishing boat over a rough stretch of shark-infested water. Critics have said it was inspired by a sense of mortality and vulnerability that overcame the artist following the death of his father. It was completed in Prout’s Neck, Maine, during the fall of 1899 when the Boston-born painter was sixty-three.
I had been meaning to go to The Met since I first moved to Manhattan a couple of summers back. The museum is only a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment but the swarms of tourist groups and hour-long waits on the weekends had always dissuaded me from making a plan and committing to it. Plus, New Yorkers take a weird level of pride in out-busying each other which I’m not immune to. Plans get made and flaked on and the world keeps turning. So like a neglected chore, “Go to The Met” sat under the to-do column of my dry-erase calendar for over a year. It was early November at the time and I had one more week of unemployment to burn before I started my new job downtown. Two months earlier I had been laid-off from my gig at a startup in Williamsburg.
The time-off did me well. I woke up fully rested and went on long runs through Central Park in the middle of the day. I picked up books that I had been meaning to finish for years, and even started meditating. To top it off, I pulled the trigger on a white Telecaster that I had eye’d for months. Getting laid-off sucks and I wanted some reverb.
I went to the museum on a Monday which meant small crowds and whole sections to myself. Pollock, Dali, Monet, Frank Loyd Wright, and me on a Monday in New York City. Being a party of one gave me the ability to blend into the back of a few guided tours which is how I first came upon The Gulf Stream. I joined a group of art students standing by the painting, listening attentively to their professor. The woman looked to be in her mid-seventies; she wore thick-glasses and what I figured was a hearing-aid. She was frail but spoke boldly, and I could tell right away she had the room. I’m convinced she saw me join and chose to let the trespassing slide if it meant she was getting another student.
She lectured about Homer’s life and described how he was an isolationist who never married, how he thrived on privacy and silence to paint the great themes of his career: Man against the sea and the relationship of fragile, transient human life to the timelessness of nature. Now I was listening attentively. She pointed out the symbolism in the painting and how it could be interpreted; how the sharks might represent a looming sense of fear or imminent doom; how the white schooner in the distance was suggestive, perhaps poignantly, of rescue; and if the protagonist, stuck on the dismasted boat, had accepted his demise.
Then, pointing out the ambiguous nature of the symbolism, she opened it up for discussion: “Take the schooner for example…is there irony in the fact that salvation for our sailor lies faintly in the distance — or does his preoccupation with his own preservation make him unable to look for it at all? The fate of the sailor,” she revealed, “is ultimately a subjective interpretation which makes viewing this piece a self-revealing experience.”
Just like a Rorschach test, I thought, remembering from a high school psych class how someone’s perception of the world could be determined from their reaction to an ambiguous pattern of inkblots. I was too self-conscious to make the suggestion aloud.
On later research, I learned that Homer was almost always ambiguous on the fate of the sailor in The Gulf Stream. He hated being asked to attribute any sort of meaning or backstory to the subjects of his paintings. Yet this was a time before television, when images on canvas typically represented one dramatic plot point of a larger tale. Art dealers, in order to sell the paintings, were expected to know the storylines so their wealthy buyers could converse over the narrative arcs among friends and dinner guests. The more intriguing the backstory and satisfying the end, the more sought after the painting became.
In one exchange, a dealer pressed the artist to give an explanation of the fate of the sailor in The Gulf Stream, mainly because his clients would feel better about their purchase if they knew the hero had made it out alive. Homer, likely irked by the question, gave them the response they were looking for:
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 seaman who now is so dazed & parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.
After the class moved on that day, I sat in front of The Gulf Stream for a little while longer. With the gallery to myself, I thought about a 63-year-old Winslow Homer in 1899 and why he chose to paint it. My guess is that he did feel unsure of himself after his father passed away — vulnerable to the currents of age and where they were pulling him. I considered the balance of the scene, the way it rendered elements of peril and hope as if they were symmetrical. And then I thought about what this meant in the context of my own life, and why I couldn’t help but feel inspired by it.
To me, the sailor doesn’t look like he’s afraid. His body language is confident as is his gaze, which in no way suggests a readiness to give up. Steadying himself with a tight grip on the bolt line, he appears to be scanning the horizon for a solution. If the schooner is meant to be literal then he hasn’t noticed it; nor is he letting the sharks divert his attention, even though they pose a real threat to his life. He is weathering the storm of his misfortune in stoic fashion, which makes me think the painting is about the middle of his story — not the end. A reminder from a lonely artist long ago that when the sharks and storms come we must face them bravely.
That’s what I see in the inkblots.