Water Works

Kerry James Marshall, the Black Edward Hopper

In 2003, Marshall painted a nautical scene that echoes a picture by America's most recent Old Master.

11.29.13 2:23 PM ET

“Gulf Stream” was painted by Kerry James Marshall in 2003, and is now in his small solo show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  The gallery points out that the painting is clearly related to Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” from 1899, in the Metropolitan Museum collection. The Homer shows a shipwrecked black man whose little boat is surrounded by sharks, and that precedent adds an undercurrent of angst to a Marshall that might otherwise seem perfectly cheery.  But another comparison that seems equally apt to me: Down the road at the Corcoran museum, there’s "Ground Swell", a 1939 painting by Edward Hopper, which, in colors very much like Marshall’s, shows a bunch of white people out for a day’s sailing in the most yar of yachts. I think there’s a sense that Marshall is trying out what it might look and feel like to insert African Americans into a cheery world and culture that they’ve never had a place in. (The fisherman’s net around the edge of Marshall’s picture evokes the ersatz  New England of a bad lunch spot in the Hamptons.)

Of course, if you buy Alexander Nemerov’s reading of  the Hopper, which says that it’s a picture about the gathering clouds of war, then Marshall’s two sources aren’t that far apart. 

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