The subject of Sunlight on the Coast is the never-ending battle between the sea and the shore, captured under specific conditions of light and weather. The painting’s simplified composition, strong linear rhythms, earth-toned harmonies, and broadly textured brushwork determine its particular mood. A heavy blue-green wave rolls in and breaks over a shelf of brown rocks, spewing foam and spray. Homer successfully conveyed the wave’s heaving, weighty mass and the iridescence of the swirling countercurrent. The wave’s bulk, its powerful sliding, rolling motion, and its suction force as it funnels in on itself represent nature’s might.
Homer’s title for his painting seems curious. Sunlight barely pierces the darkness, although it transforms the backwash of one wave into a glittering surface and illuminates a portion of the sea and a steamship on the distant horizon. This diagonal recession in space from the dark lower left to the light upper right runs counter to the angle of the wave and conveys the vastness of the sea. As in the paintings that were to follow Sunlight on the Coast, Homer’s depiction of the forceful interplay between the sea and the shore is an image of contemplation that manifests aspects of man’s relationship with nature.