The Gulf Stream, 1899, reworked by 1906. Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1906.
Homer was preoccupied with the power of the ocean, and often made it the subject of his art, whether at home on the coast of Maine or while traveling. The Gulf Stream is named after the strong Atlantic current that connected many of the locales where he liked to paint. Homer based this dramatic scene of imminent disaster on sketches and watercolors he had made during winter trips to the Bahamas in 1884 and 1898, after crossing the Gulf Stream several times. A man faces his demise on a dismasted, rudderless fishing boat, sustained by only a few stalks of sugarcane, while threatened by sharks and a distant waterspout. He is oblivious to the schooner on the left horizon, which Homer later added to the composition as a sign of hopeful rescue. Painted shortly after the death of his father, in 1898, the painting has been interpreted as an expression of the artist’s presumed sense of mortality and vulnerability. The Gulf Stream also references some of the complex social and political issues of the era—war, the legacy of slavery, and American imperialism—as well as more universal concerns with the fragility of human life and the dominance of nature.