When asked by his dealer to explain his most disquieting painting, The Gulf Stream of 1899, depicting a Black sailor adrift in shark-infested seas, Winslow Homer responded, “The subject of this picture is comprised in its title & I will refer… inquisitive school ma’ams to Lieut. Maury.” While scholars have generally dismissed Homer’s directive to consult a nineteenth-century oceanographer, I propose to take Homer for his word—to follow the eponymous current and to attend to the storms, ships, and creatures that moved through it.
This lecture interrogates Homer’s marines anew by focusing on the unique epistemology and materiality of the ocean. The late photographer and theorist Allan Sekula has called the oceans a “forgotten space.” Indeed, art historians tend to look out to sea from the perspective of dry land, focusing on terrestrial makers and markets despite the many “global” turns of our discipline. Attending to the sea not only brings us closer to Homer’s own experience (when ocean travel was the norm and shipwrecks featured in the daily papers), but also raises awareness to the fact that we still live in a maritime world—a world where 90% of global commodities are moved by ships. By connecting maritime spaces of the past and present, this talk will show that Homer’s marines are not just universal visions of nature’s power, as they are often understood, but are politically embedded in nineteenth-century understandings of imperialism and globalization—conditions that still govern the oceans today.
Maggie Cao is the David G. Frey Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a historian of eighteenth and nineteenth-century American art in a global context. Her research focuses on the history of globalization with particular interest in intersections of art with histories of technology, natural science, and economics. She is the author of The End of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America (2018) and has also published on such topics as media theory, material culture, and ecocriticism. She is currently writing a book on American painting and overseas empire building in the nineteenth century.
Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld) and Dr Tom Day (The Courtauld).