Lost on the Grand Banks: Winslow Homer

Lost on the Grand Banks Winslow Homer

Lost on the Grand Banks is a marine oil on canvas painting by American artist Winslow Homer. It was painted in 1885 in the American Realist style.

This work is located in a Private Collection, owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Lost on the Grand Banks Analysis

Lost on the Grand Banks (1885) by Winslow Homer is one of the characteristic marine scenes for which the painter was well known.

The seascape painting depicts two men inside a rowing boat as they are caught in a moment of alarm. The water around them has turned choppy; dark waves have risen all around.

It is most certainly not the time to be rowing out in the open. Even worse, Homer’s title and the posture of distress that we see in the man further back seem to tell us that the two have lost the notion of which way is the closest shore.

The dingy tone set by the incoming rainstorm defines the atmosphere of this canvas. The simple structure of the painting may be observed in the way that three hues make up the essence of the scene.

The majority of its upper half is taken up by an ashen sky which brings to mind a marmoreal pane acting as the distant background to an eye-level surface. The water, which comprises most of the lower half of the painting and surrounds the slight vessel, is of the colour of fresh asphalt: charcoal black at its highest pitches, dusky and eventually pale blue at the lower levels (azure on the far right).

The light brown boat in the middle creates a contrast with its surroundings and thereby emerges somewhat as the main object of the painting also by means of its colour. The brownish clothing and complexion of the two men make them appear as one with their vessel, and therefore a single compound object helplessly swayed on the surface of the water.

Impacted mainly from above and slightly from the right-hand side, the vessel appears particularly clear in its colour, though not so much in its detail, thanks to the cold natural light which descends in the minutes preceding a rainstorm introduced by a gathering of overcast.

Telling us mutely that something is not right, the man further back has stopped rowing. His oar is clinging to the edge of the hull sideways. He is leaning over the edge in an apparent effort to see something to the left of our scene.

He may have sighted a shape and therefore a sign of a shore. Or he may be straining to see if there is certainly nothing that way before committing his energies to another direction.

The Location of Lost on the Grand Banks

The sheer simplicity of Winslow Homer’s vision requires and contains no geographical context. We only need to observe a boat caught in disturbed waters. We need not know, for instance, whether it is in a large lake or out at sea.

We do know, however, that the scene belongs to somewhere in the vicinity of Prouts Neck, a watery peninsula at Scarborough, Maine, in the North-East of the United States.

This is where Homer could be found in 1885, and this is where he also painted Herring Net and The Fog Warning, strikingly similar compositions centred upon the daily battle of local fishermen with the ocean, their source of sustenance and, potentially, their fatal enemy.

The People of Lost on the Grand Banks

The fishermen appearing in these paintings are anonymous: their faces are barely visible. What matters is their existence as ordinary human subjects immersed in sublime but inclement nature.

Winslow Homer and Prouts Neck

Winslow Homer resided in Prouts Neck, Scarborough, from 1883, in a family house within sight of the Atlantic Ocean.

This period of a strong focus on New England fishermen follows upon his period in England (1881-1882), where he discovered an interest in the material reality of working people in the coastal regions, and his watercolour phase, which began in 1873. This painting is, however, an oil.

It is interesting to note that Homer’s special devotion to the lives of fishermen and physical workers, in general, does not extend, as noted above, to their personalities. Details of their appearance or lineaments of their faces are left undeveloped; we, therefore, recognise no individuality.

The interest and therefore the focus is on the role that they play in the economy of social life as well as commerce.

One hypothetical reason for Homer’s avoidance of fully elaborated human subjects is the sentimental disappointments which in the 1870s led him to remove himself from broad society and live a more recluse life.

On the other hand, it could be argued that no real difference subsists between the Homer of, say, the 1860s and the Homer of the 1890s. His paintings were never devoted to identifiable individuals but to unexceptional events in some unknown person’s life that he had deemed interesting. Alternatively, they are scenes of communitarian life in the subject matter are the people doing something together.

An example from the 1860s is the Prisoners from the Front while one from the 1890s is the Huntsman and Dogs. Indeed, no painting in Homer’s oeuvre is named after an individual. In the age of the highly remunerated portraitist John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer stuck to badly patronised visions of ordinary human life.

Lost on the Grand Banks attracted attention in 1998 when the billionaire and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is reported to have spent $30 million on acquiring it. At the time, this set the record for the highest amount spent on American artwork. The previous record had been $11 million.

The painting has stayed in Gates’ possession since.

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