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Homer, The Fog Warning (Halibut Fishing)

Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning (Halibut Fishing), 1885, oil on canvas, 30-1/4 x 48-1/2 inches / 76.83 x 123.19 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Man: The dory is riding up the great swell and the fisherman is taking that moment to make sure that he can see the ship he's got to reach. Girl: We're looking at Winslow Homer's The Fog Warning from 1885 and that row boat is tipped all the way forward. That swell that the boat is riding on is high and he's about to go back down. He's looking back to the ship that he needs to get back to and as he looks in that direction he sees the fog rolling in. Any second that ship maybe lost in that fog and he'll be out on the open ocean alone. Man: This is a painting where we see the protagonist this fisherman assessing his situation and we assess it along with him. Girl: Except we don't see his face very much like in The Lifeline. Home doesn't show us the face of the figure. We can't exactly read their emotion, but wonderfully that leaves it open for us to think about what he's thinking about. Man: He's had a long and successful day. There are at least 2 large halibut in the boat with him and he wants to bring them back. He's off the coast of [Nufinmund] in the open ocean at the outer banks. This is still an important fishing ground but it is very far out to sea and if he doesn't make it back to that ship he's lost. Girl: And his boat is his livelihood. Ne needs to make it safely back to that boat and he needs to make it with the day's catch. He needs to go back and make his living. It really is about the ruthlessness of nature and we feel that not only in the strength of the sea but of course in the dark cast of the sky. What is most powerful is not only the surge of the surf but also the isolation of this figure, it's a big cold ocean. It's really empty and he has nobody to rely on but himself. That ship can't see him, his boat is too small. The ship that we see on the horizon is far away and we have a sense of the extraordinary physical strength it's going to take on the fisherman's part to get back there. Man: He needs to take these opportunities at the crest of each of those swells to be able to navigate his way back to that ship. Here he's assessing not only direction, but he's also assessing the time that it will take and the darkness that's going to fall. Girl: Like Homer's painting of The Lifeline, we have this moment of danger. This moment where we don't know what's going to happen. This moment when human beings try to overcome the dangers that nature has put them in. Like in The Lifeline, Homer is using a variety of brush strokes to give us a sense of the water and the spray of the see with broad whitish blue strokes of paint in the foreground that we can see through to the dark water underneath. So we really have a sense of the depths of the sea. Man: That's the foam. You can see, it's such an effective representation of the foam that's left over in the wake of the dory. You know what really strikes me is there's this beautiful sunset. If this was a painting that was made on land as just an expression of a beautiful aesthetic experience. Here, it's a harbinger of darkness and it really has become menacing. It's so interesting the way that Homer has transformed the way we would normally look at a sunset. Girl: Or an image of the sea in American painting. If we think about the way that water is represented in luminous painting for example where it's a beautiful glassy sheen that gives a sense of reflection and contemplativeness. Here, the sea is a space for drama. Man: And is activated in every possible way. This is a painting where the structure of space is absolutely fluid, as fluid as the water is. Girl: If we think back to the history of American landscape painting where human beings are not so much actors within that space confronting the challenges of nature. Nature's grandiose and sublime for example in the paintings of Albert Bierstadt of Frederick Church. Here, it's not the landscape itself that's sublime that contains force and power. It's the confrontation, it's the relationship between man and nature. (piano playing)