Images from the Atheneauem.org
In 1859 Homer moved to New York to be closer to the illustration market particularly Harpers Magazine that was using a lot of his freelance work. He also enrolled at the National Academy of design school to draw figures in their life classes. There were no art schools in Boston at the time so he was pretty much self taught. He also took some painting lessons from a little known artist named Rondel, a Bostonian.
In 1861 Harpers sent him to illustrate the civil war, at this time the front was just outside of Washington and was relatively quiet. His illustrations from this first visit to the war are also relatively quiet, they are mostly camp scenes. This was the beginning of McClellands tenure as a recalcitrant general who was reticent to join battle with the enemy. It was this fault that caused Lincoln to ultimately replace him. McClelland was to run for president as a Democrat nominated at the Chicago convention on an anti war platform. Had he won he intended to end the war and let the Souths secession stand and slavery continue.
The men in the picture above are Zoauve soldiers, special troops costumed in short decorative tunics and baggy jodhpurs patterned after French Algerian troops who were thought particularly fierce.
The picture above of a sharpshooter was used as the basis for a wood engraving in Harpers that was emblematic of the war as few other images had been. Its implied focus outside the painting and the lethality of the "modern" weapon he carried showed a war that was different and more distant, mechanized and impersonal than the wars of the past, foreshadowing WWI more than recalling the wars of the earlier Napoleonic era.
Below is another camp scene from this era.
Homer made a second several month long visit to the front in 1863 and this time he was present for actual battles. Still, aside from some less successful battle scenes based mostly on European conventions, his art is mostly of the soldiers going about their daily routines rather than grand battle scenes. "Prisoners from the front" seen above was exhibited at the National Academy of Design and led to his admission. The characters of the different prisoners are studies into human nature with the varying reaction of the different confederate captives
This picture of a soldier atop a bulwark taunting the enemy is likely an incident that Homer observed and is the opposite of the massed charge Napoleonic battle scenes of a precious generation of war artists. It is more of an individual narrative, a short story that makes you wonder how it ended. There are muzzle flashes and puffs of smoke from the enemy lines. The viewer is left to wonder if the soldier survived this act.
This last picture is of a veteran newly returned to his farming. It recalls the biblical injunction to beat your swords into plowshares. The mowing of the wheat echos the mowing of so many men in the battle this returnee has left behind him. It is a visual metaphor and has an eerie and monumental feel.
Already in these few early paintings Homer has established himself as a special and important American painter. The psychological weight of these pictures distinguishes his art above most of the American paintings done before.