Winslow Homer - The Obtuse Bard (draft 20150402) screen 126b

With The Gulf Stream Winslow Homer may be alluding to Isaiah Chapter 33:21-23.

Isaiah Chapter 33

  • 21 But there the glorious LORD will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.
  • 22 For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he will save us.
  • 23 Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their mast, they could not spread the sail: then is the prey of a great spoil divided; the lame take the prey.
The Gulf Stream is a "broad river" in the Atlantic Ocean. In the distance, there is a "gallant ship" passing, but not "thereby" (Not there by the small boat).

Look again. What is the object immediately forward of the broken mast? The "what it actually is" is a wooden cleat for securing the lines, but the "what it is not," a thing it can be seen as, is a wood cross. Since the real form is identical, this is not an illusion. The thing is functionally a cleat, but the cleat also has the actual physical form of a cross.*

One possible allusion is to a Christian cross. Thinking with Isaiah, we see that the "tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their mast." Literally perhaps, because the lines were not connected to the cleat the mast broke, but the "real meaning" is perhaps a religious one, with allusions to both the Old Testament (Isaiah) and the New Testament (The Cross). We need to secure our lines to the cross if we are to be saved.

We are accustomed to discussions, such as presented above, which are purely speculative and imaginative, and not supported by empirical facts. In our common culture, we generally do not have a negative attitude regarding ideas perceived by associations with real objects, even when the conclusions are purely speculative. However, in this modern scientific technological culture, we definitely have a negative attitude regarding visual illusions when presented in a context of realism. I think imagining an allusion is no different than seeing visual illusions suggested by an indistinct similarity to visual forms. Yet, our negative cultural bias, in the context of an artwork regarded as realism, functions to block our visual perception of visual illusions. Should a visual illusion happen to become an actual conscious perception, our attitude may still block our acceptance of that phenomenal reality, even after we have seen it visually.

Is seeing a visual illusion in a realistic artwork any more spectulative than seeing the allusion to Isaiah 33? Are allusions any more valid or real that seeing the illusion of "the mother child" in Boat Builders, "the monkey" in The Cotton Pickers, "the horse's head" in War Songs, "the sister profile" in High Cliff, or the many other examples of "seeing things" that are not present in the physical context in Winslow Homer's artworks? I think not.

Here is a quote from William Ellery Channing writing about what we today typically regard as "illusions" or pareidolia. Read what Channing wrote to see how comfortable you are with his position. Channing wrote in Evidences of Revealed Religion,
This argument of Hume proves too much, and therefore proves nothing. It proves too much; for if I am to reject the strongest testimony to miracles, because testimony has often deceived me, whilst nature's order has never been found to fail, then I ought to reject a miracle, even if I should see it with my own eyes, and if all my senses should attest it; for all my senses have sometimes given false reports, whilst nature has never gone astray; and, therefore, be the circumstances ever so decisive or inconsistent with deception, still I must not believe what I see, and hear, and touch, what my senses, exercised according to the most deliberate judgment, declare to be true. All this the argument requires; and it proves too much; for disbelief, in the case supposed, is out of our power, and is instinctively pronounced absurd; and what is more, it would subvert that very order of nature on which the argument rests; for this order of nature is learned only by the exercise of my senses and judgment, and if these fail me, in the most unexceptionable circumstances, then their testimony to nature is of little worth.
Not everyone has the same attitude about everything. If you were completely comfortable with Channing's argument, perhaps you do not have the typical cultural bias that I think exists regarding "illusions" we might see in Nature. For us here, this need not be an issue at all, because Channing is not talking about looking at a painting. We are looking the works of another human being, Winslow Homer, an artist, who happened to have an incredible imagination and who lived at a time, especially in his childhood, when people did not have such a strong bias against such illusions. When you look at the images of his works here, you are not looking at Nature. You do not have to be concerned that you might see a miracle, because you are only looking at an image of Winslow Homer's artwork. You are only looking at "illusions" he saw in his mind and expressed in his art.

* Related references regarding allusions in Homer's Gulf Stream.
Chikovsky, Nicholai and Kelly, Franklin. Winslow Homer. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1995. p. 382ff. The cleat as a cross was noted, along with other allusions.

Wood, Peter H. Discusses other allusions to civil and historical issues.


Copyright 1992-2015 Peter Bueschen
The presentation is available at The Obtuse Bard website