I’m not sure when I first saw Winslow Homer’s “The Herring Net,” but the piece bobs up and down in my imagination, weathering trends, taste and time. I consider Romanticism to be an affliction, one I cannot seem to shake. The more I search this painting’s subtle and complex alchemy, the further I’m set adrift.
For all its outward simplicity, it represents a synthesis of Homer’s experience as an illustrator, painter, adventurer, storyteller and social commentator. The sheer impact of the work, his forceful command over both subject and craft, transcends my threshold for suspending disbelief.
Like most great traditional paintings, “The Herring Net” is a bundle of contradictions. The sensuous, lapping applications of paint are loose and free, yet bound by observation and specificity. The jagged naturalistic mountains of water soften and shimmer through sfumato like a fading dream. Foreshortening compresses volume, creating a bold, graphic quality and expanding the sense of scale. An intimate glimpse surrounded by vast emptiness suggests isolation and vulnerability. Color values and hues are so close in places that, like a Morandi still-life, distinction between man and boat dissolves.
Everything is wet, slippery, moving. Homer’s expertise with watercolors, like J.M.W. Turner’s, informs his unique understanding of color and its vibrant light from within. The shifting sea is dark, warm and green in the foreground, and lighter, cooler and bluer in the far distance. The sky reflects its muted, grayish purples across the glassy water, defining angles and features like countless mirrors changing positions and directions. Pure and tertiary colors are placed next to each other to create ocular vibrations, and diaphanous layers of glazing allow the eye to penetrate the surface, integrating the image as a whole.
Meanwhile, edge quality indicates space and transitions. Take the sharp sweeping curve of the boat gunwale becoming vague as it moves into atmosphere; it cuts in front of the larger fisherman’s less focused contours, making him recede. And the sharpest point of contrast slices along the hat brim of the smaller fisherman hanging from the boat. Its glistening highlight is part of a flickering field of activity across the composition as it verges on breaking the picture plane.
Homer’s observational skills and use of iconography express a precarious state of human affairs. He worked as an illustrator for Harper’s magazine, “nose to the litho stone,” and his eye for documentation is obvious here. His job was to translate photographs back when photographers were learning to frame by co-opting visual language from paintings. Hence he rendered countless compositions with influences and subjects that harken back to the Renaissance while often referencing secular current events.
Here two fishermen plumb the depths for survival, bound by necessity in a risky and carefully choreographed venture. The bigger man threatens to capsize the boat as he tugs his fishing net, while his partner acts as ballast against an ebbing wave. The two fuse together into a monumental structure, their tableaux framed and backlit in a devotional manner reminiscent of Raphael or da Vinci.
Diagonal elements pointing toward the looming central figure create a pyramidal structure with his head at the apex, and heart dead-center on the canvas. He appears to rise from the vessel, head lowered prayerfully. A set of symbolic wooden oars, forming a cross behind him, comes into view from the atomized light. As in William Blake’s “Ancient Of Days,” the fisherman is God-like, exerting his will on the powerless below.
“The Herring Net” as a title suggests a shift from human drama to the plight of fish, but it’s a metaphor for the ephemeral. A wave of a different sort crashes over and into the boat—a net full of herring, eyes to the sky and bloody membranes showing under their gills. Blue-pink halation flashes off their scales, resembling highly polished ingots of sunken treasure. Specks of blood on the fishermen’s hands, clothes and boat glow from within the darker values. The men go about their business indifferently.
A traditional interpretation of “The Herring Net” might imply that no matter how things change, they remain the same. Renaissance principles of composition still have impact, people still struggle and die, the ocean is still dangerous. What has changed is the uniqueness of the moment. This painting is an eloquent and emotional piece of reportage, documenting a high watermark (so to speak) in the health of our planet. Homer’s painting represents a time before industrialization and wholesale degradation of the environment.
Unlike the orange buoy in the foreground, marking the limits for safe passage, we’re now drifting like a boat without an anchor—weathering global warming, as vulnerable as an offshore oil rig in the eye of a hurricane.
This painting would be impossible to paint now. I imagine the great swell of debris pushed out to sea over the past 130 years since Homer finished his painting, the sort of trove a net would gather from the flotsam and jetsam purged by waves up and down our coasts. What would the catch look like now?