A few weeks before the Covid-19 virus began sweeping through the United States, forcing the closures of schools, businesses, and cultural institutions, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago where I enjoyed viewing several Winslow Homer paintings. My favorite was The Herring Net, from 1885, in which two fishermen struggle against wind and wave while working to secure the day’s catch. One figure hauls the netted herring into a dory while the other unloads these shimmering treasures from the sea. The forces of nature in this piece are palpable, from the wind-whipped waves and the cold ocean spray, to the posture of the fishermen as they brace themselves against these elements.
As an artist, Homer had long been inspired by the sea when he made a visit to an English fishing community in 1881. This experience fundamentally changed him, as his later work focused largely on humankind’s age-old struggle with nature. In this sense, Winslow Homer’s The Herring Net reminds me of a story I loved reading as a child: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” another classic tale of the human-versus-nature dilemma.
Today, as I follow media reports in hopes of hearing the news that we’re advancing in our effort to overcome the coronavirus, I’m thinking of Homer’s The Herring Net not only because I viewed this piece just a few months ago, but because this painting, like the current pandemic, reminds me that our contest with nature continues. And until we have a vaccine, an antidote to help restore our lives, we have paintings such as this to remind us of our common struggles and of the value of teamwork in addressing them.
John Gifford’s essays have appeared in Southwest Review, Notre Dame Magazine, and The Atlantic, and are forthcoming in Gastronomica and Catamaran Literary Reader.
Winslow Homer (1836–1910) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He originally worked as a professional printmaker. His first painting, depicting Civil War imagery, dates back to 1863.