A young man lying flat in his canoe locks a firm grip onto the antler of a deer, which barely has its head above the water's surface. Nearby, a hound dog paddles toward the boat.
The action in the scene appears to suggest an attempt to save the deer's life -- or kill it.
Neither possibility, however, bears out.
In fact, American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) had another interpretation in mind when he captured the moment in his celebrated painting Hound and Hunter (1892).
Hound and Hunter provides a vivid, if not unsettling, narrative view about wilderness life in late 19th-century America. Today, this piece anchors an engaging look at Homer's art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The exhibit, Winslow Homer in the National Gallery of Art, presents a rich survey of Homer's oeuvre through about 50 paintings and works on paper drawn exclusively from the gallery's collection.
The display features several Homer oil paintings, including his early icon of a boat with a crew of three boys and an elderly man at the tiller in Breezing Up (A Fair Wind) (1873-1876). The painting exudes a sense of optimism for the future in the United States during its centennial celebration.
Homer produced a rich body of graphite drawings and watercolors. He sometimes also used similar subject matter across media. His drawing of two Union horse-mounted soldiers in Two Sheridan Scouts (1865) became a portrait of mounted Confederates more than 20 years later in his watercolor, Two Scouts (1887).
A selection of Homer's works depicting women in different occupations pepper the show. In one watercolor gem, Blackboard (1877), Homer used a variety of geometric patterns to shape a composition that has a young teacher as its focus.
The final section of the exhibit features a series of vibrant watercolors awash in tropical blues and greens produced during sojourns to Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas and Bermuda.
The last major oil painting by Homer, Right and Left (1909), proved one of his most complex. The reaction of two goldeneye ducks to a hunter's gunfire in the piece presents a meditation on life and death, and perhaps reflects the artist's awareness of his advanced years and mortality. One duck seemingly swings away from the danger and dodges death, while the other meets its end, twisting upside down in a gesture of fading life.
Winslow Homer in the National Gallery of Art remains on view in the museum's East Building through Feb. 20.
The National Gallery of Art is between Third and Ninth streets and Constitution Avenue Northwest. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday; noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. Admission: Free. Call 202- 737-4215 or go to www.nga.gov.
For more art events, see Page 32.