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Homer, Northeaster

Met curator H. Barbara Weinberg on the power of nature in Winslow Homer’s Northeaster, 1895; reworked by 1901.

View this work on the metmuseum.org

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

Homer, I think, is one of the greatest painters of the sea. He takes very few elements: the rocky shore of Maine, the crashing surf, and the sky, and turns those into an icon of the power of nature. Homer first finished the work in 1895. He let it go to a collector, and it was photographed at that point. And that, you would think, would be that. But about 1900, Homer took the painting back, and repainted it, and what he did was to paint out two men who had appeared on the rocks. They would have given a kind of anecdotal or narrative hook, but they’re gone in the final version. In what appears at first glance to be a very, very simple painting, there’s a tremendous amount of richness. The sea is not just aquamarine blue. There are ochres and dark yellows. There are purples and mauves embedded in the sky, and in that great spray at the left, whites and grays and blues and lavenders. And then, in the rocks in the foreground, amazing oranges and golds. Long streaks of paint still retain the brush marks, and wonderful curlicues of paint, and amazing impastos. He made that extraordinary plume of crashing surf a really living form that comes forward to the surface of the painting. It is so committed to expressing the surface that Homer might be becoming a real twentieth-century artist. It’s no longer people’s struggles against the sea, but the sea and the coast and the sky themselves. This is a painting that speaks to anyone on earth, of any time. The sea is a universal realm, and it’s a place that we don’t really understand. We can explore it, we can get to its depths, but we never really understand its power, its force, and he’s like no other artist in being able to express his awe before these incredible forces of inscrutable nature.