The Gulf Stream

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Winslow Homer
American, 1836-1910

The Gulf Stream, probably 1899, dated by the artist "1889"

Transparent watercolor, with touches of opaque watercolor and traces of blotting, over graphite, on moderately thick, moderately textured, ivory wove paper (lower edge trimmed)
288 x 509 mm
Signed recto, lower right, in graphite: "Sketch-/W. H./1889"
Inscribed verso, center: "M.K.W.C. 1022-//The Gulf Stream"; upper left, in graphite: "25810"; upper center, in graphite [inside square]: "12"; upper right, in graphite: "28"
Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1933.1241

Homer’s exploration of life and death in the tropics found ultimate expression in his oil painting The Gulf Stream painted at Prout’s Neck following his return from the Bahamas. A group of four watercolors documents the evolution of this terrifying seascape, which details the plight of a solitary black man, adrift in stormy seas on a broken boat and encircled by a school of aggressive requiem sharks. In early 1885, on his first trip to the Bahamas, Homer had painted Shark Fishing which depicts two fishermen controlling a hooked shark that struggles, mouth open, in the immediate foreground. On this same trip, the artist executed a similar subject, Sharks (The Derelict). In this work, an unmanned wooden boat, broken-masted and taking on water, is under attack by at least three large, circling animals. The fact that the boat is empty leaves the viewer to wonder if the worst has already happened.

Homer’s 1898 voyage to the Bahamas must have reminded him of these works, suggesting the idea for his next major painting. Either in Nassau, or more likely after he returned to Prout’s Neck, he developed the theme in two watercolors. One is Study for “The Gulf Stream”, a detailed view of the bow of the derelict boat that corresponds closely to the final painting. In the work, the artist trimmed a horizontal sheet into a vertical format and filled it nearly to the top with churning waves. In the Art Institute’s watercolor study The Gulf Stream, Homer positioned the shark so that it appears to swim over the submerged side of the boat. It is probable that he painted this work in his Prout’s Neck studio, where he would have been able to refer to the studies from 1885. He trimmed the bottom of The Gulf Stream sheet, forcing the belly of the shark right up against the picture plane. In both this watercolor and in the finished painting, the impassive (or dazed) expression of the castaway and his surprisingly relaxed (or resigned) pose imbue the subject with ambiguity.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, The Museum of the Brooklyn Institute, "Water Colors by Winslow Homer," October 16–November 7, 1915, p. 9, cat. 45.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Twenty Water Colors by Winslow Homer, Martin Ryerson Collection," January 5–June 16, 1916, no cat.

Pittsburgh, Pa., Carnegie Institute, "Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent: An Exhibition of Water Colors," November 1–27, 1917, cat. 16; also traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art, November 30–December 31, 1917; the Toledo Museum of Art, January 1918; the Detroit Museum of Art, February 2–28, 1918; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, March 1918; the Milwaukee Art Institute, April 1918; the City Art Museum of St. Louis, May 5–26, 1918; and the Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, New York, June 6–July 7, 1918.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer Lent by Martin A. Ryerson," October 1–26, 1920, no cat.

Muskegon, Mich., Hackley Art Gallery, "Watercolors and Drawings by Winslow Homer, Lent by Martin Ryerson," May 9–June 20, 1921, no cat.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer, Martin Ryerson Collection," July–September, 1921, no cat.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "The Second International Water Color Exhibition," April 15–May 21, 1922, p. 20, cat. 190.

Paris, Hotel de la Chambre Syndicale de la Curiosité et des Beaux Arts, "Exposition d'Art Americain," May 18–June 25, 1923, p. 40, cat. 15.

Omaha Society of Fine Arts, December 26, 1924–February 3, 1925, no cat.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer from the Collection of Martin A. Ryerson," April 1926, no cat.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer from the Collection of Martin A. Ryerson," July–Fall, 1926, no cat.

The Buffalo Fine Art Academy, Albright Art Gallery, "An Important Group of Paintings in Oil and Water Color by Winslow Homer: Loaned by The Art Institute of Chicago," December 15, 1929–January 6, 1930, cat. 12.

New York, Museum of Modern Art, "Winslow Homer, Albert P. Ryder, Thomas Eakins," May 1930, p. 25, cat. 50.

City Art Museum of St. Louis, "Water Colors by Winslow Homer," December 15, 1932–January 15, 1933, no cat.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "A Century of Progress," June 1–November 1, 1933, p. 92, cat. 895.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "A Century of Progress," June 1–November 1, 1934, p. 68, cat. 474.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Homer Centenary," July 16–August 16, 1936, no cat.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Museum of Art, "Winslow Homer," May 2–June 8, 1936, cat. 40.

New York, M. Knoedler and Company, "Winslow Homer: Artist," January 20–February 8, 1936, cat. 8.

Indianapolis, Ind., John Herron Art Institute, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer Lent by the Art Institute of Chicago," November 1–December 15, 1936, no cat.

Pittsburgh, Pa., Carnegie Institute, "Centenary Exhibition of Works by Winslow Homer," January 28–March 7, 1937, p. 23, cat. 55.

The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, "Winslow Homer to Present Day Chicago," November 29–December 20, 1941, cat. 6.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Twenty-Two Watercolors by Winslow Homer," April 13–May 14, 1944 (Gallery G59), no cat.

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Water Colors and Drawings by Winslow Homer," October 14–December 4, 1944 (Gallery 13), no cat.

New York, Century Association, "Paintings by Thomas Eakins, 1844–1916, and Watercolors by Winslow Homer, 1836–1910," January 10–February 25, 1951, no cat.

Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, "Homer and the Sea," Fall 1964, cat. 31, cat. by Lloyd Goodrich; also traveled to Newport News, Va., The Mariners Museum, Fall 1964.

Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, "Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck," July 8–September 4, 1966, cat. 39 (ill.).

The Art Institute of Chicago, "Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light," February 16-May 11, 2008, pp. 188, 189 (ill.), 190, chap. 5 n. 28, cat. by Martha Tedeschi and Kristi Dahm.

Publication History

“Knoedler Firm Buys 21 Winslow Homers,” New York Herald (November 19, 1915).

“Notes,” Bulletin of The Art Institute of Chicago 10: 2 (February 1916), p. 143.

"Current Exhibitions," Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 14: 8 (November 1922), p. 99 (ill.).

The Art Institute of Chicago, A Guide to the Paintings in the Permanent Collection (Chicago, 1925), p. 164, no. 2385.

Theodore Bolton, “Water Colors by Homer: Critique and Catalogue,” The Fine Arts 18: 5 (April 1932), p. 52.

Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, Winslow Homer, American Artist: His World and His Work (New York, 1961), p. 100 (ill.).

Philip C. Beam, Winslow Homer at Prout’s Neck (Boston, 1966), pp. 168–69, fig. 70.

Winslow Homer’s Sub-Tropical America, exh. cat. (Coral Gables, Fla.: Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, 1968), pp. 12 and 25, cat. 29.

John Wilmerding, Winslow Homer (New York, 1972), pp. 174 and 212, fig. 5–23.

Patti Hannaway, Winslow Homer in the Tropics (Richmond, 1973), pp. 166–67, pl. 13.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, exh. cat. (New York, 1976), p. 15, fig. 9.

Gordon Hendricks, The Life and Work of Winslow Homer (New York, 1979), pp. 196–97 and 285, fig. CL–104.

Philip C. Beam, Winslow Homer Watercolors, exh. cat. (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1983), pp. 30 and 46.

Helen A. Cooper, Winslow Homer Watercolors, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: The National Gallery of Art, 1986), pp. 142, and 251, cat. 134 (ill.).

David Andrews, Training the Hand and Eye: American Drawings from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1989), p. 8.

Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., “Homer Around 1900,” Winslow Homer: A Symposium (Washington, D.C., 1990), pp. 134 and 136, fig. 4.

Ann Keay Beneduce, A Weekend with Winslow Homer (New York, 1993), p. 52.

Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., and Franklin Kelly, Winslow Homer, exh. cat. (Washington D.C.: The National Gallery of Art, 1995), p. 382, fig. 245.

Peter H. Wood, Weathering the Storm: Inside Winslow Homer’s “Gulf Stream” (Athens, 2004), p. 27, pl. 4.

Randall C. Griffin, Winslow Homer: An American Vision (New York, 2006), pp. 186, 200, fig. 178 (ill.).

Robert M. Poole, “Hidden Depths,” Smithsonian Magazine 39: 2 (May 2008), p. 94.

Ownership History

The artist to his brother, Charles S. Homer, Jr. (1834–1917), New York, by 1910 [according to correspondence from Abigail Booth Gerdts to the Art Institute, February 10, 2007]. Charles W. Gould (1849–1931), New York, by 1915 [Brooklyn exh. cat. 1915]. Sold by Knoedler and Company, New York, to Martin A. Ryerson (1856–1932), Chicago, November 11, 1915 [invoice]; given to the Art Institute, 1933.