Few outdoors his native USA shall be accustomed to the artist Winslow Homer, stated Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Instances. Our nationwide assortment accommodates not a single “vital 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 amazing drama that makes the work of his British contemporaries look fussy and affected by comparability.

The present brings collectively a shocking 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 offers us an image of a pioneering artist with a refreshingly ambiguous outlook, a painter who “knew easy methods to set off curiosity and preserve 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 Conflict as an illustrator-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly journal, stated Alastair Sooke in The Every day Telegraph. Clearly, battle and hazard appealed to him as subject material: “he beloved 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 fundamental 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 moderately unconvincing sharks. “If it is a masterpiece, it’s a faintly ridiculous one.” The identical might be stated of a lot else right here: the “downright peculiar” Undertow (1886), as an illustration, sees a gaggle of semi-nude males, “as ripped as classical statuary”, rescuing girls from the waves. We do see the odd “robust and memorable” portray right here, however for essentially the most half, it’s laborious to get too enthusiastic about Homer. His work has “an excessive amount of boyish, adventuresome melodrama, and inadequate thriller”.

Undeniably inconsistent work

“Homer is usually 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 awesome eye for a resonant image.

His works that take care of the Civil Conflict and the top 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 Outdated 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 far 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