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Canon on a fort pointed toward the sea. Dark blue sky in the moonlight.

Searchlight on Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba

In this nocturnal scene, Winslow Homer, known for his paintings of the sea’s power in the 1890s, depicts the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Fleet’s hunt of the Spanish Squadron. Spanish ships had retreated into Santiago Bay on May 27, 1898, and subsequently were trapped by the U.S. naval blockade. The viewpoint from San Pedro de la Roca—still under Spanish control—encompasses a guard tower, a crenelated wall, and two cannons. 

X-ray technology reveals that Homer initially included a Spanish soldier to the left of the guard tower, but he painted this figure out. U.S. ships, out- fitted with two searchlights and positioned outside of the picture plane, cast two beams into the night sky and onto the coastline, looking for Spanish ships. The focus on the navy’s innovative searchlight also demonstrates Homer’s lifelong interest in technology. On July 3, the Spanish attempted a daring escape, but the U.S. Navy sunk every vessel in the squadron.

Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Oil on canvas
77.5 × 128.3 cm (30 1/2 × 50 1/2 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art; gift of George A. Hearn, 1906
Audio file
Audio commentary by Kate Clarke Lemay, Historian, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Audio Transcription: This painting demonstrates two of the most interesting hallmarks of Winslow Homer's career– a focus on technology and a focus on the hunt. And so in the focus on technology, you can see the presence of U.S. naval ships through the beam of the searchlight, which was the most cutting-edge technology of the time. That is what those white, filmy, conical shapes are. Homer was really interested in technology, so it's not surprising that he would create a contrast between the technology of the searchlight with that antiquated technology, if you will, of the 17th century canon, which for Homer is an oblique reference to the outdated, crumbling empire of Spain. Another hallmark that we see is the hunt. Homer would paint animals on the hunt right before the kill. And something similar is happening here. The Bay of Santiago's mouth of the harbor was only 400 feet wide. And so unfortunately for the Spanish, once they had retreated into the bay, they were trapped. And so the U.S. Navy is just biding its time, waiting for the Spanish to pluck up the courage to maneuver their boats and attempt their escape. And when they did, on July 3 of 1898, the U.S. Navy sunk every ship.

– I am Kay Clarke Lemay. I'm a historian at the National Portrait Gallery, and I'm co-curator of “1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions.”