Few exterior his native USA shall be accustomed to the artist Winslow Homer, stated Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Instances. Our nationwide assortment comprises not a single “important portray” of his, and if he’s identified in any respect on these shores, it’s as a “boat painter” whose work is however a footnote within the story of nineteenth century artwork.

But in America, Homer (1836-1910) is a totemic determine – and, as this “compelling” exhibition on the Nationwide Gallery demonstrates, he’s commemorated for good cause. A largely self-taught artist, he was a singular painter with “a expertise for storytelling” and a knack for injecting his canvases with an awesome drama that makes the work of his British contemporaries look fussy and affected by comparability.

The present brings collectively a surprising collection of his work, from the awe-inspiring seascapes for which he’s greatest identified, to work depicting the plight of freed slaves within the Bible Belt, to “on a regular basis scenes” of nineteenth century American life. It provides us an image of a pioneering artist with a refreshingly ambiguous outlook, a painter who “knew tips on how to set off curiosity and maintain you guessing”. The goal of this “involving” show is “to enlarge Homer’s transatlantic repute”, and it deserves to succeed.

Attraction of battle and hazard

Born right into a “well-to-do New England household”, Homer established himself chronicling the Civil Struggle as an illustrator-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly journal, stated Alastair Sooke in The Day by day Telegraph. Clearly, battle and hazard appealed to him as material: “he liked portray weapons, shipwrecks, searching scenes, freakish waves”. A transformative second got here throughout a keep in – of all locations – a Northumbrian coastal village in 1881-82, when Homer discovered himself “transfixed by the basic struggles of its fisherfolk”, and launched a way of “keening grandeur” to the maritime work he then favoured.

Maybe essentially the most well-known of those is The Gulf Stream (1899), wherein a “cartoonish, musclebound” black sailor clings to a ship with a damaged mast, beset by swelling waves and a few quite unconvincing sharks. “If this can be a masterpiece, it’s a faintly ridiculous one.” The identical may very well be stated of a lot else right here: the “downright peculiar” Undertow (1886), as an example, sees a bunch of semi-nude males, “as ripped as classical statuary”, rescuing ladies from the waves. We do see the odd “sturdy and memorable” portray right here, however for essentially the most half, it’s arduous to get too enthusiastic about Homer. His work has “an excessive amount of boyish, adventuresome melodrama, and inadequate thriller”.

Undeniably inconsistent work

“Homer could be a clumsy artist,” stated Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. His work is undeniably inconsistent: he was “deeply chromatic and wild” one second, “a bit uninteresting” the subsequent. But he has “an depth and keenness”, in addition to an incredible eye for a resonant image.

His works that take care of the Civil Struggle and the tip of slavery are notably arresting: Sharpshooter (1863), a portray developed from his battle sketches, depicts a Union sniper aiming his rifle from a tree, his face “a blur”; A Go to from the Previous Mistress (1876) sees an aged white former slave-owner visiting a black household who as soon as belonged to her. The household stare at their customer “with rather more of their eyes than can ever be stated – a lifetime and extra of questions and accusations”. For all of Homer’s limitations, this present is an “eye-opening odyssey”.

Nationwide Gallery, London WC2. Till 8 January 2023