Though not remarkable for powerful drawing nor for any especially beautiful quality of color, this picture has a force about it, an air of truth, a fine sculpturesque quality of modelling, that puts it far beyond the ordinary well-done sort of work that we are bound to praise for its honesty, but which does not excite our enthusiasm. In this picture there is a breath of great art. Small though the canvas be, unconventional though real as the composition is, with its four figures in a row, and eccentric as is some of the drawing, this picture is tremendously effective. . . . [Homer’s] ‘Undertow,’ by its virility, its truth, its sincerity of intention, outranks every picture in the Academy exhibition.
—“Fine Arts. The Academy Exhibition—I,” The Nation, 14 Apr. 1887
Homer seems rising to the difference between the merely illustrative and the picturesque in design; but his color sense stirs only sluggishly. The ‘Undertow’ is pitched in neutral grays and greens, and one cannot rave over it.
—John C. Van Dyke, American Painting and Its Tradition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919)
The sexual implications of the motion of the waves, and that conjunction of water and rock . . . soft and slack on the female side, taut and active on the male—are echoed in Undertow, where the soft curves of the sculptural female bodies contrast with the angularity and the oddly military pose of the almost marching and saluting muscled figure on the left who is hauling his catch from the sea while a wave crashes into foam behind him. . . . For Homer this imagery seems not carnal but a dramatic moment of epiphany, a celebration of the life force.
—Jules Prown, “Winslow Homer in His Art,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Spring 1987
During a visit to Atlantic City in 1883, Homer witnessed a rescue of drowning swimmers that reportedly inspired this scene, which he completed three years later. Two men pull ashore female swimmers who have nearly drowned after getting caught in an undertow. An early biographer of the painter recounted that Homer repeatedly doused his models with water to capture the appearance of wet drapery and of the sun glistening on soaked hair, skin, and clothing. Homer’s careful attention to the modeling of the human form was frequently mentioned by early critics who observed that the figures “are like sculpture in their modeling” and that they possess a “monumental quality of a Greek pedimental group.” Indeed, the artist’s concentrated attention to representing the four figural forms outweighs the sense of alarm or anxiety that such a scene would seem to warrant, revealing a more unrestrained delight in the human body, even in the sensual and the erotic, than in any other of Homer’s works.
In a letter to the painting’s eventual buyer, Edward D. Adams (which is part of the Clark’s collection), Homer wrote: “I can state to you now that my price is $3,000, less whatever commission I should have had to pay to any dealers had they sold it. . . . [T]hat would make it net me $2400 and never will I take any less.” Homer sold the painting to Adams for his asking price, a high one for a contemporary American artist in 1889.
The artist painted Undertow at his home in Prout’s Neck, Maine, and he showed the point from which he painted it to a prominent American art dealer William Macbeth, during the latter’s visit to the artist in 1910. Undertow was one of several paintings completed at Prout’s Neck from 1884 to 1886 that dealt with the subject of the dangers of the sea. The theme of man’s confrontation with the elements absorbed Homer to the end of his career.
—Susannah Maurer, graduate intern for Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History and member of the Class of 2006, Graduate Program in the History of Art co-sponsored by Williams College and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute