Winslow Homer painted Driftwood at the age of seventy-three. It was the last canvas completed by this prolific American artist and there is much evidence to suggest he conceived it as his final work of art, certain that he would never paint again. Driftwood can thus be regarded as the culmination of Homer’s oeuvre, a summary of the major themes of his entire body of work: nostalgia, manhood, and, most importantly, mortality.
Driftwood is the last of Homer’s many paintings to depict a fearless sea-faring man, a theme he had explored since the 1880s in compositions like The Fog Warning. Its resonance increases when it is examined in the context of other paintings Homer made around the same time, when he departed from depicting the dramatic contest between man and nature characteristic of so many of his earlier images and focused instead on the universal theme of death. For example, Right and Left (1909, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Homer’s penultimate painting, captures the moment when two birds, shot by a hunter, fall lifelessly into the eternal abyss of the sea. Driftwood offers a similar scenario in which the protagonist faces nature’s inevitable victory. It is difficult to imagine how the small hunched seaman will be able to maneuver the large fallen tree trunk with his rope. The grim odds he faces are visually reinforced by the dominance of the sea, which fills most of the canvas. Homer also emphasizes the expansiveness of the ocean by creating an alternating diagonal movement with light and dark pigment that carries the viewer’s eye to the horizon. A tiny ship in the far left background indicates just how far into the distance the water extends. The seagull on the right side of the scene gives another point of comparison for scale; both of these objects are perspectival cues for the viewer. Such formal qualities help convey the sea’s all-consuming reach, and act as a metaphor for the protagonist’s—and, by extension, the artist’s (and the viewer’s)—contemplations of mortality.