Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Winslow Homer and the Civil War

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.


willek said...

I saw that last picture, "Veteran in a new Field" at the MFA a few years ago. It was big as I recall and in the context it was in it was a powerful painting. At the time I had just returned from visiting Antietam and THAT was really powerful and may have influenced my sensibilities.

Mary Byrom said...

Thanks Stapleton- I think its possible his early work in the Civil War had a significant impact on him and his development as an individual and distinctly American artist.

Mike Thompson said...

A few years back the Chicago Art Institute did a joint Homer/Hopper exhibit - watercolors by Homer and WC's/oils by Hopper. I haven't been the same since. I bought both books written for the show. ''Watercolors by Winslow Homer The Color of Light'' goes into the technical aspects of his watercolors unlike anything else I have on Homer. While his monumental works are mainly oils, Homer painted over 900 watercolors and got big bucks for them, too. I like his Adirondack and Canadian WC's more than his Adirondack oils. Illustrations, oils, watercolors - I don't think it is possible to study Homer too much.

Paul said...

Interesting use of horizon in the pics - cutting halfway thru the heads of the standing soldiers and plowman. This seems to ground them to the earth. The lookout is above the horizon which makes him more heroic, spiritual, angelic. Wasn't the sharp-shooter one of his first paintings? I love Homer - thanks for posting these, Stape.

T Arthur Smith said...

When you look at a lot of the other big name artists of the time, their work is mostly portraiture - young, wealthy women lounging in livingrooms, etc. I'm generalizing, but my point is it's easy to forget the hardship and death that struck the entire country throughout this time. It seems to have really effected Homer, continuing all through his travels and hunting scenes. Did he ever leave a diary?

alotter said...

Do you know why there are so many tree stumps in the one of the taunting soldier? It doesn't seem possible that the armies could take the time to cut down and remove all the trees simply in order to prepare a more convenient battlefield.

And are those telegraph poles in the distance?

Is it OK to ask artless questions like mine?

jeff said...

I love Winslow Homer his ability to pitch a painting is amazing.
I saw an interesting show a few years ago at the MFA in Boston and in this show they had some early work.
There were a small series of ink silhouettes that were done for some illustration. They were superb.

Philip Koch said...

Great stuff! The silhouettes of the lone figures in the last two paintings are just perfect. I'm in awe of Homer.

A few years ago I visited Homer's studio in Prout's Neck in Maine (the Portland Museum has taken it over and is in the process of renovating it to look more like it did in Homer's day). It was fairly large, and of course, right on the rocky shore. But other than that its ordinariness was striking. It reminded me its what you bring to the subject more than where you paint that makes the crucial difference. Homer brought a lot.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is a chilling and powerful painting.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think the war had a huge effect on that whole generation, like WWII did on my parents.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I intend to do an entry on his watercolors soon.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

T. Arthur;
I don't know about a diary but his papers are in the archives of American Art.,


Stapleton Kearns said...

Armies use lots of firewood, and need logs for corduroy roads and even telegraph poles.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I also saw that show. I wish I could see it again.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I look forward to when they open it to the public. I would actually be more interested in the shore there. I would like to see if I could find some of his locations. One of my hobbies.