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Winslow Homer: The Stern Facts

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National Gallery of Art
Winslow Homer: Home, Sweet Home, circa 1863

Winslow Homer, an artist of conceptual originality and high-wire technical audacity, once described the historical component of one of his paintings, of a fortified harbor at night, as the “stern facts.” During his long and varied career, Homer (who died in 1910 at the age of seventy-four) painted some of the most familiar images in all of American art. Many people today would recognize his incomparable sporting pictures of leaping trout and drowning deer, or his heroic seascapes of hard-bitten fisherfolk and intrepid rescuers in violent storms. His dazzling watercolors of the tropics have had a recent vogue—brushy, highly colored vignettes of palms and poinsettias, with an unerring feel for the possibilities of the medium that recalls the masters of Japanese painting, which recent research suggests he was familiar with. There is often an element of risk in Homer’s paintings, either in the subject depicted or in the medium adopted, as in the do-or-die decisions of watercolor.

Danger is at the heart of a pungent and enigmatic picture like The Gulf Stream (1899), which portrays a bare-chested African-American man adrift in a rudderless boat with a broken mast, amid a choppy sea seething with menacing, open-jawed sharks, and with a threatening waterspout on the horizon. An over-the-top painting like this retains its magnetic hold on viewers, even as scholars continue to debate its elusive meanings. Does the picture have something to say about the embattled status of blacks around the time of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), as some scholars have suggested, or is it simply a naturalistic picture of a fisherman in deep trouble?1 When asked by a baffled prospective buyer for an explanation of The Gulf Stream, Homer, who was famously taciturn, replied, “I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires description.”

But it was as a painter of historical events that Homer first made his mark, and specifically as a recorder of the “stern facts” of the American Civil War. Sent to the front by Harper’s magazine during the fall of 1861, he was embedded, as we would now say, with Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. At a time when photographers, like those hired by Mathew Brady, required long minutes for their exposures and hence “still” subjects, artists like Homer were counted on to convey the movement and suspense of the battlefield.

Homer was thirty-one when he first traveled to Virginia, and almost as new to the job as the young recruits he sketched. He had moved to New York two years earlier, in 1859, after completing an apprenticeship with a lithographer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, an importer of hardware, had hoped for a more prestigious education for his sons when he installed them in a house near the Harvard campus. Charles Homer “wiggled through Harvard,” as he put it, but his younger brother Winslow, encouraged, one assumes, by their mother, a skilled watercolorist, “wanted to draw.” He described his monotonous apprenticeship, designing covers for sheet music and the like, as “slavery,” and escaped to the more lucrative markets for illustrators in New York, while also taking classes at the National Academy of Design.

Homer’s real college, as many commentators have noted, was the war. One can see in the drawings and prints that resulted from his first stint at the front with what stunning speed—faster, it might be said, than the hapless General McClellan—he grasped the new realities of the conflict. He dispensed with the hackneyed imagery of theatrical battle charges, drawn from Meissonier and other purveyors of the Napoleonic campaigns, and zeroed in, instead, on the lethal machinery of modern warfare: the rifle of the youthful Sharpshooter (1863), for example, in his first documented oil painting.

But it was the human face of the war that Homer most insisted on. Among the first oil paintings that he exhibited in New York was Home, Sweet Home (circa 1863), which depicts soldiers listening to a band in the distance. The engaging painting draws from journalistic conventions. There is a great deal of information about camp life in the matter of tents and saddlebags, a muted harmony of complementary blue and orange expanses, and little in the way of visual ambiguity. One may be surprised that the picture was singled out by approving critics for its lack of “clap-trap” and “sentimentality.” What could be more sentimental than pensive soldiers listening yearningly to a band playing “Home, Sweet Home”? But there’s an astringent wit to the picture in the contrast between the current “home” of the soldiers—low tents and a small pot over a fire with a piece of hardtack on the side—and the emotions presumably summoned up by the distant music.

Homer was among the first artists to recognize that an adequate account of the war was incomplete without the inclusion of its African-American participants. With characteristic speed, he moved from portraying racist caricatures readymade in the popular press—woolly-headed banjo players and bug-eyed dancing cooks—to rendering powerful studies showing the human dignity of the black soldiers. In a pioneering book on these images, called Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years (1988), written in conjunction with Karen C.C. Dalton, the Duke historian Peter H. Wood singled out a painting of 1865–1866 in what he called Homer’s “evolution”:

If any one image epitomizes Homer’s Civil War evolution and his increasing willingness to place substantial black figures at the center of his work, it is a little-known painting of a slave woman that was discovered in a New Jersey attic in the early 1960s, nearly a century after its completion.

The painting in the attic, as subsequent research brought to light, was titled Near Andersonville.

The visual format of Near Andersonville, although Wood does not say so, is remarkably similar to Home, Sweet Home. In both pictures, a standing figure in three-quarter view, with head covered, takes up the center of the painting. Framed by the trappings of a makeshift and uninviting home, this central figure seems to be thinking about what a group of uniformed soldiers, in the upper-left distance, are up to. Both pictures have a dominant brown tonality, relieved by bits of red on the human figures, and by the partially clouded blue of the sky.

In his new book, Wood asks us to look closely at every detail of Near Andersonville: the young slave woman, dressed in a patterned red turban and white apron, standing on the threshold of a simple brown wooden building; the plump brown gourds and empty bucket that lie on the ground and the wooden shelves on either side of her. Her hands—one on her hip and one hanging down—are positioned like the hands of the standing soldier in Home, Sweet Home. Just as the gold insignia on the soldier’s hat is level with the metallic glint of the band instruments, the woman’s red turban is level with a red Confederate flag carried by a guard escorting Union prisoners.

These complex paintings of Homer’s first major phase seem to establish something analogous to the split screen of movies and television, or the thought bubbles of comic strips. We can guess the mixed reactions of the soldier listening to the distant band playing “Home, Sweet Home.” But what, we wonder, is the relation of the pensive slave woman to the Union captives being led away to the death camp at Andersonville in southwest Georgia, a prison so notorious for its hideous overcrowding, disgusting sanitation, and appalling death rate (nearly a third of the roughly 41,000 men imprisoned there died in captivity) that its commanding officer, Captain Henry Wirz, was the only Confederate official executed for war crimes after the war? Peter Wood tries to provide answers in Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War, comprised of three lectures about the painting, initially delivered at Harvard.

The lectures give, first, a dramatic account of the discovery of “The Picture in the Attic”; second, a vivid account of Homer’s experience as a correspondent “Behind Enemy Lines,” in which Wood speculates, in passing and with scant evidence, that Homer, a deeply private man who never married, might have suffered from post-traumatic stress2; and, third, an extended and at times emotionally overwrought interpretation of “The Woman in the Sunlight.”

The first two lectures are well researched and lively to read. In “The Picture in the Attic,” Wood, somewhat in the manner of the popular television series Antiques Roadshow, tries to resolve the mysteries surrounding the picture’s provenance. His research eventually led him to identify a young woman called Louise Kellogg as the first owner of the painting. Kellogg, Wood has discovered, joined the corps of idealistic young teachers known as “Gideon’s Band,” who traveled to the South after the war to teach the children of freed slaves. Kellogg worked near the South Carolina coast where, Wood speculates, she may have encountered Homer’s younger brother, Arthur, who patrolled the area on a naval vessel. Kellogg, about whom very little is known, died of tuberculosis soon after acquiring the painting, which then passed into the hands of successive generations of her family.

Wood goes on to offer a fresh perspective on Homer’s upbringing, especially with regard to the militant abolitionism of midcentury Cambridge. We learn that Homer’s father attended Lyman Beecher’s school, and “would have met” his children Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, both of whom became prominent abolitionists. We are reminded that Homer depicted, in his early illustrations, many of the key events leading up to the Civil War, such as Frederick Douglass being dragged from the stage in Boston and the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by a Southern representative in the Senate chamber. Wood argues that the atmosphere of Harper’s, with its corps of pro-Union illustrators such as Thomas Nast, would have encouraged a view of American painting as carrying “veiled” political commentary.

In his culminating section, Wood tries to combine what he has learned about the provenance of the painting and Homer’s early career to advance a fresh interpretation of Near Andersonville. The Union captives in the background, Wood believes, are victims of General George Stoneman’s disastrous raid of July 1864. General William Tecumseh Sherman, frustrated in his attempts to seize Atlanta, had sent Stoneman on a mission to destroy Confederate supply lines south of the city; Stoneman had proposed an additional mission, to free Union captives at Andersonville. The bungled raid led to an ironic result, as many more Union captives, including Stoneman himself, were led off to prison. The picture may also allude, in Wood’s view, to controversial efforts to arrange an exchange of prisoners, which had broken down on an issue involving race. Confederate negotiators refused to include African-American prisoners in such exchanges, regarding them as runaways rather than soldiers. All these things, Wood suggests, might be on the pensive slave woman’s mind in Near Andersonville.

  1. 1

    In The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art (Encounter, 2004), Richard Kimball takes Albert Boime to task for claiming, in an influential article of 1989, that The Gulf Stream is “an allegory of the black man’s victimization at the end of the nineteenth century.” He also mentions Peter Wood’s essay “Waiting in Limbo: A Reconsideration of Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream ” (1981) as an earlier attempt to enlist Homer as a sympathetic commentator on African-American experience. Kimball, against such allegorical interpretations, maintains that Homer painted sharks circling around a derelict boat because “he thought it would make for a dramatic motif. It’s that simple.” 

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    Homer’s mother reported that he returned after two months at the front “so changed that his best friends did not know him.” On the basis of this remark and a few paintings of wounded veterans, Wood speculates that “her artistic son may have papered over what we now call posttraumatic stress. Some have explained Homer, the private bachelor of later years, as a taciturn Yankee or a closeted homosexual. I think it makes equal sense to suggest that shadows of combat remained a lasting part of Homer’s life.” 

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