published in the Tennessee Tribune 3/9/00
We Can Learn about Ourselves
from Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream
By Daniel Reiss
The following is a talk from the series
Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel Shows How Art Answers the Questions of
Your Life! given free to the public on the first Saturday every month
at 2.30 p.m. in the Terrain Gallery of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
I have liked Winslow Homer's painting, The Gulf Stream, for many
years, but I would never have understood what makes it so beautiful, nor
that it can teach men and women about our own lives, had it not been for
my study of Aesthetic Realism. Eli Siegel, who founded the education of
Aesthetic Realism, defined what beauty is and pointed to its importance
for every person's life in this principle: "All beauty is a making one
of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after
The Gulf Stream
People have been pained at not being able to make sense of their desire
for energetic activity on one hand, and for rest or repose on the other.
Aesthetic Realism teaches that we can learn from art how to put these opposites
together in our lives. Homer’s painting — in its composition and technique
shows that we can feel truly reposeful and energetic at once. It
has in it a man on a boat whose mast has been broken and swept away by
a hurricane, adrift in the restless sea, and surrounded by sharks. I once
thought it justified my feeling that the world was cruel and battered one
I learned this was not what this painting is about, or why I liked it.
Homer's The Gulf Stream met my deepest hope — to like the world
honestly — because it puts opposites together in a way that shows the world
At any age people can want to get away from things, and older people
tend to go more and more for rest. At 88, I am grateful to continue to
learn about this drive in myself and humanity in classes and public seminars
at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation
in New York City.
In "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" Eli Siegel asks about Repose
Is there in painting an effect which arises from the being together
of repose and energy in the artist's mind? — can both repose and energy
be seen in a painting's line and color, plane and volume, surface and depth,
detail and composition? — and is the true effect of a good painting on
the spectator one that makes at once for repose and energy, calmness and
intensity, serenity and stir?
The tumultuous sea and whitecaps, the sharks, broken boat and waterspout
in the distance on the right — all have motion and turbulence. Yet the
man seems strangely at ease as he rests on his elbow, looking out. Homer’s
composition shows that both man and world are a relation of "repose and
energy, calmness and intensity, serenity and stir."
Before I met Aesthetic Realism I shuttled between feverish, exhausting
activity in work or sports, to getting home, pulling down the blinds and
going to sleep. I felt these different directions in myself had to fight.
It was my good fortune that in 1947 I began to study it. In the thousands
of Aesthetic Realism Lessons which Eli Siegel gave to people, he saw each
person with the deep comprehension humanity hopes for, because he saw every
person as an aesthetic situation of opposites. When I told Mr. Siegel
in a lesson, of a frightening dream about being on a train, on a stretcher,
You want to be on the move, but while being on the move you're afraid
that something in you wants to be very quiet and take it easy. While you're
on the train something in you would like to take it easy and be in the
The opposites which were fighting in me, are made beautifully one in The
Gulf Stream. There is the activity of the waves, the waterspout, the
sharks, as the boat is tossed about, while the schooner in the distance
on the left is moving calmly. There is motion in the waves as they roll
and peak, but there is ease at the same time because of the definiteness
of the shapes and the rhythm of the curves. I believe that is why watching
the ocean makes for composure in people.
As the man reclines on the boat he is not taking it easy, as I once
did, to get away from the world — his mind is alert as he looks out steadily
for help. I understood more why this painting moved me, when I read this
sentence by Mr. Siegel: "If we look at a desperate and controlled sea painting
of Winslow Homer, we can see passion and control given to black muscles."
Aesthetic Realism understands anger, which I was so pained about and
unable to control. In a lesson Mr. Siegel said:
While you jump from being sweet to angry you'll be tired. You want
to like people and also hate them, and you go from hot to cold. While you
play around with this you're going to be tired.
This fight in me and so many men is resolved in The Gulf Stream.
Look at the relation between the open mouth of the shark with its teeth
and the dark opening of the boat’s hold from which sweet sugar cane extends.
The cane represents a world giving the man sustenance. The fierce and the
sweet do not jump from one to the other, as they once did in me.
I learned my anger came from wanting to feel that people were against
me; that I was in a hostile world I should be separate from. As Homer separates
things, he also joins them and shows they are not against each other. The
curve of the back of the boat is like the curve of the shark’s tail fin
and body on the right, and the curves of waves and sharks are alike.
Homer has bathed the man and boat in light and they seem to be safely
nestled in a trough of waves. Does this say the world can be comforting?
I believe Homer's work shows his hope to make sense of wanting to see the
world as an enemy and as a friend — the fight Eli Siegel so kindly explained
Aesthetic Realism taught me that repose and energy do not have to fight,
and saved me from a life of anger and loneliness. This is a hopeful and
beautiful painting because it composes repose and energy, the fierce and
sweet, in such a way that shows the world makes sense. We can all learn
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