Visual Analysis of "The Gulf Stream"
by Jennifer Story
"No state shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." This phrase is part of the 14th amendment of the Constitution. It was written after the civil war and made all citizens, regardless of color, equal. Unfortunately, this did little to change the treatment of newly freed slaves in the United States or undo the damage caused by slavery. "The Gulf Stream" by Winslow Homer expresses the reality of the African American and the hypocrisy of a nation.
The very first thing I noticed in the portrait was the boat. The reason for this was the hull had been painted white. This contrasted against the darkness of the ocean dramatically. I think the author wanted our eye drawn to the boat because it tells the biggest part of the message he's trying to get across. The other reason that my eye was drawn to the boat was the fact that it had no sail. The mast was completely broken off. Even with my limited knowledge of boats, I knew that it was a mortal wound to any ship and meant almost certain death for it's crew. The initial feeling I got from this text was despair. It was despair at the hopelessness of the situation the man on this battered boat faced.
The man on the boat is a young African American male. He is barefoot. The only clothes he is wearing is a pair of tattered, light colored pants. By all outward appearances, he looks like a slave. The expression on his face is hard to read. You can tell he doesn't want to be on this damaged and aimless boat, but he is stuck. His chiseled face is turned. His dark eyes are staring in the direction he came from. One can't help but think that he is staring back at his homeland. I think the text most definitely suggests a plot for the image captured. The artist is making a statement about the evils of slavery. He also is speaking of the contradiction of the freeing of slaves and the oppression that still existed at the time. The artist painted the voyage of a slave ship from the perspective of the slave rather than by the crew that did the enslaving. He wants the viewer to empathize with the free man. He is free. He has no chains but he is on a damaged ship that is deadly and out of his control. The artistic choices of the painter evoke a very dark time in American society. It was a time when the building blocks of our nation, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, touted the equality of all men except those forced here in chains. The various colors the author uses help create the darkness of that time. They are chosen carefully so as to set the mood. The sky is gray and cloudy. This suggests sadness and confusion. Storms rage, turning the sea into frothy white waves. White is a recurring color in this painting. This is no coincidence. It represents the color of the people that have caused all this sadness and confusion. The ocean itself is a very dark blue. This invokes a feeling of unfathomable depth and unknown dangers lurking below the surface. There is red in the water. This is no doubt blood. It stands out against the dark blue and makes you ponder why it's there. The artist uses many different symbols to get his point across. The boat is the major symbol. Boats represent journeys. This boat helps symbolize the journeys made by slaves. It portrays the helplessness of their situation. They were crammed into a boat that was out of their control. When freed, they were given rights as useless as the damaged boat in the painting. Because the mast is broken on this ship, the man has absolutely no control over his destination. His only option is to sit helplessly. He turns his head back the way he came and longs for the home he left behind. His uncontrollable boat is heading into the eye of a storm. His fate is just as clouded as the sky that lay ahead of him. This symbolizes the uncertain future that awaited African Americans brought to America in shackles and sold into slavery. Being free didn't clear the haze either. They knew nothing of the fight that still lay ahead. Even if they did know the horror that awaited them, there was little they could do to escape it. That is where the sharks in the painting come into play. Prominently in the foreground, they circle the boat like a pack of hungry wolves. They represent what could happen to a slave that tried to escape. The man on the boat could jump from his wayward craft and not continue on this voyage. If he does, he risks being eaten by the hungry sharks. They are already lapping at the sides of his craft and have bitten chunks from it in an attempt to get him. This could also symbolize the racists who would hang a black man for exercising any of his civil liberties. The sharks are as white as the hooded outfits of the KKK. The blood in the water suggests that others, who have tried to escape from this boat, have met a terrible end. The same was true of those that tried to escape the bonds of slavery or segregation. The sharks won't allow him to jump in the water. Water represents life. Thus, the sharks are very much like racist white men. They both prevent the black man life. The slave owners and the racists demanded obedience. Any slave brave enough to demand freedom and escape was hunted down and killed. After they were freed, they were separate but never equal. When they demanded equality, they were hanged. The man faces destruction if he tries to escape. There are a couple repeating, yet very poignant, patterns in this painting. The first is the numerous sharks in the water. This suggests that the prejudice incurred by freed slaves wasn't random and infrequent. It was a daily occurrence inflicted by numerous people. Several ropes are seen in the painting as well. This represents the bondage that even freed slaves still endured. It also represents the most repulsing image of slavery and racism. Ropes were used to lynch countless blacks. After much examination, I noticed that in the background there is a large ship on the horizon. It is far away and barely noticeable because of the clouds and fog that darken the sky.
The first impression this ship gave me was that there was perhaps a glimmer of hope for the young man in the boat. Maybe, just maybe, he could be saved. It could represent the hope that all former slaves had. Perhaps the boat represents the freedom that would be given back to the enslaved. Just like their freedom, the ship is obscured by fog and not fully realized. The ship looks like it is sailing in the opposite direction as the man's damaged boat. Maybe, if the man can get on the boat, he can go back to the land that he left behind.
The name of this portrait is "The Gulf Stream". The Gulf Stream's predictable winds helped import all the things a fledgling nation needs to prosper. It allowed us to become the most powerful democracy in the world. The Gulf Stream's winds also helped deliver many a slave into the hands of subjugation. This painting expresses the contradiction. It was painted after reconstruction and portrays the inconsistency in the treatment of the freed slave. Though given freedom, the black man still faced Jim Crow laws and the terrorist tactics of racist groups. With it's analogy of being on a broken boat out in the middle of a raging ocean full of man-eating sharks with almost no hope of rescue, it depicts the sociological, political, economic, and cultural reality of a black man in the United States at the turn of the century.