Teach close reading skills, foreshadowing, and historical fiction writing with Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning
Getting to the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, wasn’t quick or easy. From Marblehead the trip took seven days, sailing night and day. Once fishing schooners reached the Banks, it took several weeks, with the best of luck, to catch enough fish to fill the hold. Weather conditions on the Grand Banks are treacherous always. The distance from shore makes them isolated, and the relative shallowness of the ocean makes them susceptible to thick blinding fog that rolls in quickly…In the 18th and early 19 century, fishing was done from the schooners by handlining. But by the 1830s, dories came into use. Dory fishermen were at risk every day as they set off in their small boats. They carried with them food, water, fog horns and noisemakers. If a fog rolled in while they were fishing, it was sometimes so thick and all consuming that it made any hope of finding the way back to the “mothership” impossible. Dory men would use the fog horns and noisemakers to alert the crew that had remained aboard their fishing sloop of their location. Then the crew would use their own fog horns to try to guide the dories back. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
— an excerpt from Fishing in Volatile Grand Banks was Risky Business by Pam Peterson on Wicked Local: Marblehead. This article also recounts the story of the legendary Gloucester fisherman Harry Blackburn.
Tossed on the waves in his frail dory, at greater or less distance from his vessel, he is subject to perils unknown to the fisherman of the olden times. His frail boat rides like a shell upon the surface of the sea, but in experienced hands no description of small craft is safer. Yet a moment of carelessness or inattention, or a slight miscalculation, may cost him his life. And a greater foe than carelessness lies in wait for its prey. The stealthy fog enwraps him in its folds, blinds his vision, cuts off all marks to guide his course, and leaves him afloat in a measureless void. Instances are on record of many wearisome trip, of days and nights without food and water, spent in weary labor at the oars, at last to find succor from some chance vessel or by reaching a distant port; an imagination revolts from the contemplation of the hardship experienced, the hopes awakened and dispelled, and the torturing fate of many ‘lost in the fog,’ of whose trying experience nothing is ever known.
— an excerpt from The Fisheries of Gloucester from the First Catch by the English in 1623, to the Centennial Year, 1876, page 58.
Look at The Fog Warning. Before reading the excerpts above, tell students the title and ask what is going on in this picture? This will likely be an unfamiliar scene for most students but see how much they can decipher through a discussion. Encourage students to identify the evidence that supports their reasoning. Students should likewise be encouraged to share wonderings and voice confusions. As the conversation slows, explain you are going to read two excerpts that will add context to the painting. The first excerpt is a contemporary news account looking back at the past. The second excerpt is drawn from a book from the time period. After reading the excerpts ask how does this new insight change your understanding of the painting?
Begin with art history
After beginning his art career as a lithographer, copying the designs of other artists, Winslow Homer became a commercial illustrator. For 17 years he learned to study the details of a subject and tell stories through drawings. Working for periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly, he became a front line Civil War artist-correspondent. Unlike many artists who focused on battle scenes, Homer distinguished himself through his authentic depictions of everyday camp life and soldiers returning from war. After the war he adopted a more harmonious worldview, focusing more on children at play or adults engaged in leisure activities. In these paintings he celebrated the pastoral and idyllic aspects of American life. During this time he also learned how to use watercolors, which allowed him to work more quickly out in nature.
While traveling in England, Homer found inspiration in the people who lived and worked on the edges of the sea. When he returned to the United States, he established his studio on Prout’s Neck, near a fishing community in Scarborough, Maine. His work focused more and more on their hard work, tenacious existence, and daily heroism. In time, he left the shore to focus on the bounty and the dangers of the sea. As he had done during the Civil War, Homer went to the front lines to share the dangers and sketch his subjects in action. Now, however, he was on fishing schooners on the open ocean. He returned home with sketches and watercolors that would fuel some of his most celebrated struggle-with-nature oil paintings, including The Fog Warning.
While Homer was guided by his honest, straightforward sensibility and espoused an unsentimental viewpoint, his paintings were carefully composed and included references to past masters and a deft handling of design elements. By celebrating democratic ideals, the hard work and independence of American families, and America’s vast landscapes and seascapes, Homer became a heroic figure and is credited with both depicting and galvanizing the American psyche.
Look like an art critic
This image lets you to magnify The Fog Warning, allowing you to analyze its parts and scrutinize Winslow Homer’s brush strokes.
Point out and discuss: Line is the use of outlines, implied lines, and patterns of marks to create an identifiable path in an artwork. They are oftentimes used to lead the viewer’s eyes around the composition, organize significant elements, and communicate information. The consistent use of line can also instill a general feeling in an artwork. For example, strong horizontal lines can suggest rest and stability, while strong diagonal lines can suggest motion and energy. What lines do you see in The Fog Warning and how does Homer’s use of line enhance the painting’s narrative?
Turn, Talk, and Report Back (Possible answers: While the fisherman and dory are the focus of the painting, many of the dominant lines in the painting direct you to the right toward the mother ship on the horizon. Reading from left to right, the hard horizon line takes the viewer across the composition to the mother ship. The fisherman’s line of vision takes the viewer to the ship and the fog beyond. The crest of the wave the dory is riding on draws you diagonally across the canvas, with the white splash of the breaking wave underscoring the ship on the horizon. The port oar creates a hard line from the left edge that connects and accentuates the line of the cresting wave that takes you to the mother ship. The fingers of the encroaching fog likewise angle down towards the ship. Even the tail of the halibut curves up, creating an implied line that converges on the ship. The intersecting diagonal lines created by the dory and the horizon line and cresting waves accentuate the sense of motion. The smaller waves created by intersecting diagonal lines likewise heighten the sense of fluid motion. All of the lines converging on the mother ship focus the viewer on the fisherman’s goal as it fades into the fog. The expansiveness of the horizon line emphasizes the distance he will need to travel and the “measureless void” in which he could be lost. All of these lines combine to foreshadow the drama to come and activate the viewer’s imagination as they complete the narrative.)
Point out and discuss: Winslow Homer dedicated his artistic efforts to rendering what he saw. And while he strove to depict nature the way he saw it, he still exhibited great care in how he organized and presented those natural colors. How does Homer arrange the natural colors to enhance the painting’s narrative?
Turn, Talk, and Report Back (Possible answers: The composition is dominated by a dark somber palette of grays and dark greens and blues which heighten the sense of cold and instill an ominous foreboding feeling. The viewer is drawn to the halibut, which are the brightest objects in the painting. They almost glow like a treasure. The light reflecting off the waves at the stern of the dory align with the light bellies of the halibut, the reflected light off the oar, and the wave cresting beyond. This alignment of light colors draws the viewer to the mother ship on the horizon. The light colors in the sky accentuate the profile of the fisherman. This silhouetting effect makes the fisherman’s slightly tilted head look more noble and heroic. The brightness of the sky accentuates in contrast the fingers of gray fog that seem to reach for the fisherman.)
The Importance of a Title
Point out and discuss: Artists oftentimes say, “If I could say it in words, I wouldn’t have to paint it.” But that doesn’t mean that visual artists don’t have to worry about words. This painting offers a good case in point. While it is unclear whether the gallery owner mistitled the painting or Homer had a change of heart, when The Fog Warning was initially shown, the painting was titled Halibut Fishing. Soon thereafter Homer went to some effort to have the title changed to The Fog Warning. Consider the two different titles, Halibut Fishing and The Fog Warning. How does the title impact your reading of the painting? Which title is better for engaging the viewer and advancing the painting’s narrative?
Turn, Talk, and Report Back (Possible answers: The title Halibut Fishing fittingly links this painting to Homer’s previously painted The Herring Net. The Halibut Fishing title makes the viewer focus on the catch in the stern of the dory and the fisherman. It emphasizes the work and the artifacts around the fisherman. This title underscores the bounty of the ocean, not the dangers. In contrast, The Fog Warning title causes the viewer to look out to the horizon. It makes them realize that those aren’t just clouds on the horizon, rather it is a low-hanging fog. While most viewers haven’t been in a dory on the open ocean, they have experienced enveloping fog and its inherent dangers. The use of the word “Warning” heightens the sense of danger and anxiety and allows the viewer to “hear” the warning horn coming from the mother ship. The title The Fog Warning is better for setting the context for this narrative because it makes you focus on the less recognizable elements of the painting and it alerts the viewer to the impending danger. The Fog Warning title highlights the man against nature theme of the painting and foreshadows the perils he may face.)
Think like an artist
Winslow Homer honed his artistic skills as a commercial illustrator. This made him especially sensitive to the expectations of the viewing audience. In order for magazines to pay him, he needed to respond to the visual needs of their readership. At times, this carried over to his paintings where he likewise needed to sell pieces to support his career. Consider Homer’s painting, The Gulf Stream (1899).
This scene was inspired by his winter trips to the Bahamas. While capturing the characteristic features of these tropical waters, this composition explores the same themes and concerns in The Fog Warning, especially the stoic resolve of the people who worked the dangerous waters. Here a sailor lies on the deck of a disabled boat as sharks swim in the foreground and a waterspout threatens from the upper right. When this was originally exhibited, the distant rigger on the left was not shown. Responding to market demands, Homer reworked the painting and added the ship as a symbol of hope and possible salvation.
Conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid took market-driven compositions to an extreme in their Most Wanted series when they created paintings based on national surveys of desired colors, styles, and subjects.
America’s Most Wanted (below) responds to the findings that established:
- 48% of Americans prefer the color blue,
- 63% like traditional art more than modern,
- 88% prefer pictures that show outdoor scenes,
- 24% more people prefer wild animals, such as deer, over domesticated cats,
- Humans should be historical figures or ordinary people and they should be depicted fully clothed, and
- the ideal dimension was “television-sized”.
Many find this art both absurdly humorous and telling. How would your class/school respond to this survey? Do you think the teachers would have different tastes than the students? While most artists don’t work this way, it is an interesting idea to play with. Consider creating your own survey of Most Wanted songs/poems/art. The way you organize your demographics could result in some interesting findings—and pieces if you see the project through to its logical end.
Pay attention to the particulars. Long before Homer began to compose an oil painting, he studied his subjects in action, sketching them from various angles. And even when he started organizing his compositions, he would set up elaborate tableaus to study his models. For example, Homer posed his handyman Henry Lee in a dory propped up on a sand dune to compose The Fog Warning. In other paintings he sprayed his models with water so he could study how water would drip from them or cause their clothes to cling to their bodies. In writing and art, no detail is too small. Capture specifics and pay attention to the particulars.
Related videos and links
- Winslow Homer, American Artist (5:25) CBS correspondent Rita Braver tours Homer’s studio on Prout’s Neck, ME where he painted The Fog Warning.
- Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning (4:16) Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker discuss the painting’s elements.
Integrating into Your Curriculum
Artists oftentimes use common visual strategies or signposts to alert viewers to significant details in their art. Here are some ideas for using these visual signposts to unpack a work of art. Remember, the close reading skills in art appreciation are similar to the close reading practices taught in reading.
Literature Link: What piece of literature would you partner with The Fog Warning?
- Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous follows the adventures of fifteen-year-old Harvey Cheyne Jr., the spoiled son of a railroad tycoon, after he is saved from drowning by a Portuguese fisherman off the Grand Banks.
- Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is another example of allegory and Romanticism and vividly describes sea faring in the mid 19th century.
Writing opportunity: historical fiction. There is a dramatic tension in The Fog Warning as the viewer is left to wonder, what’s to happen to this fisherman. This offers students a great opportunity to extend the narrative through historical fiction. What happens next and what is the fisherman’s inner dialogue and his thoughts as he faces this danger? Will he consider dumping his treasured halibut to lighten his dory and increase his odds of getting back to the mother ship? Does experience make him stoic and resigned or does he feel panic and dread? Use these primary source documents and artifacts to ground the students’ narratives with historical facts.
- The Present Defective Methods of Dory Fishing, Its Unfortunate Features, and Proposed Remedies is an 1888 presentation to the House of Representatives, (free ebook). Be aware this offers some particularly harrowing and graphic testimony on the dangers of dory fishing including cannibalism. While the facts in this presentation may have been news to members of Congress, the findings would have been on the forefront of dory a fisherman’s mind.
- The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s On the Water site showcases the attire and tools the dory fishermen used, many of which are shown in the painting. This site offers a wealth of domain specific vocabulary.
- Gloucester Harbor Walk 29 24 40: Winslow Homer Portuguese Cod Fishing Dory Baited Fishing Line (2:10) While narrated in Portuguese and from the early 20th century, this two minute excerpt from a documentary offers historical footage of dory fishing and vividly depicts the power of the ocean and the flimsiness of dories.
- The Fisheries of Gloucester from the First Catch by the English in 1623, to the Centennial Year, 1876 (free ebook) provides an historic overview of the north Atlantic fishing industry at the same time Homer is creating his work.
- If you desire a mentor text, Chapter 5 of Captains Courageous describes life on the Grand Banks as the fog settles in.
How would you use this painting to elaborate on one of your units of study? Please share if you have other ideas on how to teach Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning as an English/language arts lesson plan.