We Can Learn about Ourselves from Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream

By Daniel Reiss

I have liked Winslow Homer’s painting, The Gulf Stream, for many years, but I would never have understood what makes it so beautiful, nor that it can teach men and women about our own lives, had it not been for my study of Aesthetic Realism. Eli Siegel, who founded the education of Aesthetic Realism, defined what beauty is and pointed to its importance for every person’s life in this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

Winslow Home, The Gulf Stream

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream

People have been pained at not being able to make sense of their desire for energetic activity on one hand, and for rest or repose on the other. Aesthetic Realism teaches that we can learn from art how to put these opposites together in our lives. Homer’s painting—in its composition and technique shows that we can feel truly reposeful and energetic at once. It has in it a man on a boat whose mast has been broken and swept away by a hurricane, adrift in the restless sea, and surrounded by sharks. I once thought it justified my feeling that the world was cruel and battered one about.

I learned this was not what this painting is about, or why I liked it. Homer’s The Gulf Stream met my deepest hope—to like the world honestly—because it puts opposites together in a way that shows the world makes sense.

At any age people can want to get away from things, and older people tend to go more and more for rest. At 88, I am grateful to continue to learn about this drive in myself and humanity in classes and public seminars at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation in New York City.

In Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? Eli Siegel asks about Repose and Energy:

Is there in painting an effect which arises from the being together of repose and energy in the artist’s mind? —can both repose and energy be seen in a painting’s line and color, plane and volume, surface and depth, detail and composition? —and is the true effect of a good painting on the spectator one that makes at once for repose and energy, calmness and intensity, serenity and stir?

The tumultuous sea and whitecaps, the sharks, broken boat and waterspout in the distance on the right—all have motion and turbulence. Yet the man seems strangely at ease as he rests on his elbow, looking out. Homer’s composition shows that both man and world are a relation of “repose and energy, calmness and intensity, serenity and stir.”

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream

Before I met Aesthetic Realism I shuttled between feverish, exhausting activity in work or sports, to getting home, pulling down the blinds and going to sleep. I felt these different directions in myself had to fight. It was my good fortune that in 1947 I began to study it. In the thousands of Aesthetic Realism Lessons which Eli Siegel gave to people, he saw each person with the deep comprehension humanity hopes for, because he saw every person as an aesthetic situation of opposites. When I told Mr. Siegel in a lesson, of a frightening dream about being on a train, on a stretcher, he explained:

You want to be on the move, but while being on the move you’re afraid that something in you wants to be very quiet and take it easy. While you’re on the train something in you would like to take it easy and be in the hospital.

The opposites which were fighting in me, are made beautifully one in The Gulf Stream. There is the activity of the waves, the waterspout, the sharks, as the boat is tossed about, while the schooner in the distance on the left is moving calmly. There is motion in the waves as they roll and peak, but there is ease at the same time because of the definiteness of the shapes and the rhythm of the curves. I believe that is why watching the ocean makes for composure in people.

As the man reclines on the boat he is not taking it easy, as I once did, to get away from the world—his mind is alert as he looks out steadily for help. I understood more why this painting moved me, when I read this sentence by Mr. Siegel: “If we look at a desperate and controlled sea painting of Winslow Homer, we can see passion and control given to black muscles.”

Aesthetic Realism understands anger, which I was so pained about and unable to control. In a lesson Mr. Siegel said:

While you jump from being sweet to angry you’ll be tired. You want to like people and also hate them, and you go from hot to cold. While you play around with this you’re going to be tired.

This fight in me and so many men is resolved in The Gulf Stream. Look at the relation between the open mouth of the shark with its teeth and the dark opening of the boat’s hold from which sweet sugar cane extends. The cane represents a world giving the man sustenance. The fierce and the sweet do not jump from one to the other, as they once did in me.

I learned my anger came from wanting to feel that people were against me; that I was in a hostile world I should be separate from. As Homer separates things, he also joins them and shows they are not against each other. The curve of the back of the boat is like the curve of the shark’s tail fin and body on the right, and the curves of waves and sharks are alike.

Homer has bathed the man and boat in light and they seem to be safely nestled in a trough of waves. Does this say the world can be comforting? I believe Homer’s work shows his hope to make sense of wanting to see the world as an enemy and as a friend—the fight Eli Siegel so kindly explained in me.

Aesthetic Realism taught me that repose and energy do not have to fight, and saved me from a life of anger and loneliness. This is a hopeful and beautiful painting because it composes repose and energy, the fierce and sweet, in such a way that shows the world makes sense. We can all learn from it.

Published in the Tennessee Tribune 3/9/00. This is a talk from the historic Terrain Gallery series Art Answers the Questions of Your Life!