Winslow Homer painted Driftwood at the age of seventy-three. It was the last canvas completed by this prolific American artist and there is much evidence to suggest he conceived it as his final work of art, certain that he would never paint again. Driftwood can thus be regarded as the...
Winslow Homer painted Driftwood at the age of seventy-three. It was the last canvas completed by this prolific American artist and there is much evidence to suggest he conceived it as his final work of art, certain that he would never paint again. Driftwood can thus be regarded as the culmination of Homer’s oeuvre, a summary of the major themes of his entire body of work: nostalgia, manhood, and, most importantly, mortality. Driftwood is the last of Homer’s many paintings to depict a fearless sea-faring man, a theme he had explored since the 1880s in compositions like The Fog Warning [94.72]. Its resonance increases when it is examined in the context of other paintings Homer made around the same time, when he departed from depicting the dramatic contest between man and nature characteristic of so many of his earlier images and focused instead on the universal theme of death. For example, Right and Left (1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Homer’s penultimate painting, captures the moment when two birds, shot by a hunter, fall lifelessly into the eternal abyss of the sea. Driftwood offers a similar scenario in which the protagonist faces nature’s inevitable victory. It is difficult to imagine how the small hunched seaman will be able to maneuver the large fallen tree trunk with his rope. The grim odds he faces are visually reinforced by the dominance of the sea, which fills most of the canvas. Homer also emphasizes the expansiveness of the ocean by creating an alternating diagonal movement with light and dark pigment that carries the viewer’s eye to the horizon. A tiny ship in the far left background indicates just how far into the distance the water extends. The seagull on the right side of the scene gives another point of comparison for scale; both of these objects are perspectival cues for the viewer. Such formal qualities help convey the sea’s all-consuming reach, and act as a metaphor for the protagonist’s—and, by extension, the artist’s (and the viewer’s)—contemplations of mortality. When he sent the painting to his dealer, Roland F. Knoedler, Homer chose the title “Driftwood” over another he apparently considered, “Spoon Drift,” which he had written on the painting’s stretcher. His change emphasizes the centrality of the log in interpreting the work. However, there is another possible source that helps illuminate Homer’s visual and nominal focus on the driftwood. The artist may have been familiar with a painting by American landscapist Frederick W. Kost entitled The Driftwood Gatherer (location unknown), which was exhibited in New York at the January 1900 sale of the collection of William T. Evans, an important American art patron. Homer’s Driftwood bears a remarkable resemblance to Kost’s painting, which was illustrated in the Evans sale catalogue and described as “a man in the act of hauling in a timber which has been carried in by the waves that beat on the beach.”  With their backs turned towards the viewer, the men in both paintings appear at odds with a spatially dominant, turbulent sea and its wreckage. However, while Kost’s protagonist stands a good chance of capturing his diminutive driftwood, Homer’s man does not. Homer’s mammoth log commands the viewer’s attention and helps imbue his scene with a tone of gravity. In facing the challenge of lifting this massive fallen tree, the man’s physical strength and virility are called into question. Like the driftwood, Homer and his lone mariner have been tossed about by life’s heavy waves; they seem at the mercy of a capricious greater power. Neither the tree nor the man stand tall any longer, and their futures, though unpredictable, are inevitable. With its philosophical appeal and moving manipulation of tone and atmosphere, it is not surprising that Driftwood sold the very same day Homer’s New York dealer received it, on November 30, 1909. Notes 1. Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., “Driftwood, Winslow Homer’s Final Painting,” Magazine Antiques, July 1996, 70. 2. Ibid., 72. 3. Catalogue of American Paintings Belonging to William T. Evans (New York: American Art Association, 1900), cat. 246. I am grateful to Theodore E. Stebbins for bringing this to my attention. Rachel Tolano
Lower left: Homer/1909
1909, consigned by the artist to M. Knoedler, New York; 1909, sold by M. Knoedler to Frank L. Babbott (1854-1933), Brooklyn; 1933, by descent to his daughter and son-in-law, Lydia Babbott Stokes and Dr. Samuel Emlen Stokes, Moorestown, New Jersey; before 1887, by descent to their daughter, Sally S. Venerable, Santa Fe, New Mexico; 1992, to the Sally S. Venerable Charitable Remainder Trust; 1993, sold by the Sally S. Venerable Charitable Remainder Trust to the MFA. (Accession Date: April 21, 1993)
Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund and other funds