Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is an American realist painter some consider the best of his time. In 1885, he painted three paintings: The Herring Net, The Fog Warning, and Sunset, Saco Bay. These paintings represent an ideal of Americanism universal with respect to time and economic class. This character is reflected in their figures, history, and symbolism.
To be an American, according to Homer, is to resist solitarily against an unsympathetic, inhospitable environment. In all three paintings, the figures depict labor with dignity despite unfavorable conditions. In The Herring Net, two fishermen expertly haul a net of herring and retain balance against the sea's turbulence. In The Fog Warning, a lone fisherman rows across storm-tossed seas with his catch, gazing out towards his schooner, lost in the beauty of the moment but without any interruption of his rowing whatsoever. (His oars are in midstroke, yet not out of control.) In Sunset, Saco Bay, after a day of collecting traps carried away by a storm threatening to take their husbands as well, two fisherwomen walk undauntedly and determinedly back home.
This individualism is the same individualism displayed by the characters of Rudyard Kipling's novels: whenever faced with an obstacle, these individuals must use their own ingenuity and strength to overcome it. In other words, they advance in the world through their own merit; they live in meritocracy. This basic assumption of American life has fueled and been fueled by its history since before the United States of America even existed independently.
In 1497, John Cabot discovered Newfoundland and introduced British colonists to the cod trade around New England.1 With fishing came a chance for entrepreneurs with little initial capital to rapidly rise into a newly affluent self-made American middle class. This opportunity created a uniquely American idea that one could, through mere determination and skill, advance in life to a powerful position. Convicted criminals, religious deviants, desperate paupers, and the wealthy seeking more wealth all came to America. Here they were freed from the restrictions placed on them by the social order before, and beyond the cultural artifice of the old class structure a system was revealed in which anyone could succeed if competent enough.
Almost. By the late 1700s, the colonists had realized that their meritocracy was not complete, and there was one social control they wanted to be without: the Trade and Navigation Acts, which stated that they could only trade directly with England. Through their determination, skill, and competence, the colonists soon pressured the British to stop enforcing this law, and, as any believer in the value of an unrestrained meritocracy would predict, the economy flourished.2
Still, there was one force that was constantly at odds with even the most competent, determined colonists. This force was nature. All of this time, social obstacles had been simply replaced with natural obstacles. This did not destroy the American dream's power, since those potential successful fishermen that did not succeed never lived to disillusion the others. Still, nature was at odds with any individual seeking to realize the American dream.
This conflict creates a subtle irony is Winslow Homer's painting. For example, the composition of The Herring Net is balanced so that a motion to the left is implied. On the right lie symbols of strength: the plentiful herring catch for wealth and success, three schooners for security and safety, a barrel for opportunities, and the sign of the cross formed by the two oars for faith and community; on the left lie threats; a wave encroaching, a tangle in the net, and a precarious situation for one fisherman balancing his weight away from the ship. The two fishermen are completely oblivious to all of these symbols, too engrossed in their work of managing the herring net and dory to realize the impending possibility of complete loss.
In The Fog Warning, the same sort of looming threat is present. The image seems one of profound serenity: the seaman has caught two huge, beautiful halibut, the day is ending and everything turning orange, a light mist is covering everything, and the sea is relatively calm. Yet, as the title suggests, that light mist could easily become a blanket of fog to blind the man's way back to his schooner. There is a good chance that he will die lost at sea, yet the man still enjoys moments and works to prevent his death. This is the ultimate of acceptance of nature's hostility, and the ultimate of faith in the virtue of meritocracy.
During Winslow Homer's youth, one of the greatest conflicts among the colonies grew to the point of war. Northern states were growing economically independent of southern states through industrialization. Southern states were sustaining themselves through slavery and plantation culture. These two methods of realizing the American dream created standards of merit that directly opposed each other. When Homer illustrated scenes from the resultant Civil War, he avoided depicting heroism or tragic death, and instead created an ideological portrayal of the opposition. This created a vividly realistic but not gory image of the tumult of the times.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Homer's art seemed to tone down and became less political. The truth is, however, that Homer's seascapes are merely purer representations of the same American ideal of resistance and stability within chaos. The three oil paintings Homer painted in 1885 show an intense battle that no watercolors could depict: in order to recreate the quality of life they had come to expect from "civilized" Europe, Americans regularly risked their lives fighting nature, which, naturally, resisted change.
1Mark Kurlansky. Cod. (Penguin Books, 1998) page 28.
2Mark Kurlansky. Cod. (Penguin Books, 1998) page 88.