As COVID-19 continues to devastate communities across America and we brace ourselves for an Election Day when so much is at stake, I find myself wondering about the role of museums. What do our collections offer at this time of turmoil and divisiveness? Do works of art from the past matter in moments of contemporary crisis? How do we adjust to the ever-changing present?
These questions were on my mind on a recent visit to the MFA. Wandering around the second floor of the Art of the Americas Wing, I paused in front of one of the most iconic works in the collection: Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning from 1885.
This beloved seascape is an unlikely work to reflect on in the midst of a pandemic and our divisive political climate. Homer’s painting doesn’t lean Democrat or Republican or address the terrible inequities and injustices that we have seen laid bare. It doesn’t urge civility or advocate for the right to vote. The Fog Warning tells a story, and it is easy and alluring to enter into its fiction. Like all great storytellers, Homer also weaves bigger themes into his narrative—themes that seem particularly resonant today.
Painted soon after the artist settled in Prouts Neck, Maine, then a fishing community and burgeoning summer resort south of Portland, The Fog Warning depicts a weather-beaten fisherman rowing alone in a small wooden boat. With eyes cast over his left shoulder, he tightly grips his oars, holding them just above the choppy surface of the water. A wave thrusts up the bow of the boat, and the day’s catch, two giant, glistening, lifeless halibut, weigh down the stern. The boat’s anchor casually leans against the forward gunnel.
Halibut fishing, as Homer learned from the fishermen he befriended, was among the most dangerous branches of the industry. Halibut traveled far offshore and catching the fish required multiple craft. Large schooners sailed miles from the coast and, once they reached a known fishing ground, dispatched small and agile flat-bottomed dories to pursue the day’s catch. The drama of The Fog Warning concerns the relationship between these two craft. The fisherman pilots a dory and looks out at the schooner to which he must return. A tiny black triangle on the horizon, this ship seems impossibly far away, almost on the verge of disappearing as it heads into the bank of fog that sweeps across the horizon.
Homer was such a gifted storyteller because he resisted the allure of an easy ending, and The Fog Warning is one of the great cliffhangers in the history of American painting. We don’t know if the fisherman makes it home safely. Rather, his fate is up to us—to our dreams, to our imagination. This is precisely why it is so compelling to escape into Homer’s story.
But as is often the case with Homer’s paintings, the harder you look the harder it is to leave the present behind. When you move beyond the narrative, when you get under the hood of Homer’s drama, you find not just a great story but something more timeless and primal, something more along the lines of a biblical parable. This 19th-century seascape gives us a framework for asking questions about the human condition—questions about who we are and our place in the world—that the events and traumas of the past weeks and months have thrown into relief.
Who, finally, is Homer’s fisherman? Is he the embodiment of human agency, a figure who stays the course amid incoming fog and rough seas with a steady gaze and clenched grip, calmly navigating forces greater than himself to reach his destination? Or, sitting in his wooden boat, literally and figuratively unanchored, is he some crusty New England incarnation of the biblical Noah who rides out the waves unmoored, powerless against fate, his destination wholly uncertain?
Homer leaves us at this crossroads. There are many ways to express what art from the past means and why it matters. The Fog Warning poses the kind of big questions only paintings can; it sends us back into the uncertain seas of our own moment, wondering how we will make it through these difficult times, what the future holds, and whether we as a nation will ever reach calmer waters.