Drawing the War, Part 4: Winslow Homer

Part four in a series.

Winslow Homer

Perhaps the Civil War “Special Artist” who is best known to the general public is Winslow Homer. He is famous for the work he did after the war, not for the sketches he did during it, but his later work was always touched by his war experience in some poignant way.

Homer was born in Boston, on February 24, 1836. He was initially self-taught, and by the time he was nineteen, he apprenticed with a lithographer, J. H. Bufford, a commercial artist. Winslow Homer cut lithography stones for such repetitive products as sheet music covers and ads for the newspapers. About his experience he said, “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and shall never have any.”

He turned down an offer to work as a lithographer for Harper’s Weekly and, instead, opened his own studio on 10th Street, New York City, in 1859. He attended New York’s National Academy of Design, and excelled in oil painting after only a year at art school. Harper’s approached him again, in March 1861, offering him a position as a “Special Artist” to draw the Lincoln Inauguration for the newspaper.

Harper’sthen sent Winslow Homer, along with other artists, to the front lines of the Army of the Potomac, where he sketched both battle engagements and camp life. He stayed with McClellan’s men through the Peninsula Campaign.

Homer’s Illustration in Harpers Weekly

Although double-page woodcuts of Homer’s illustration showing battle and camp scenes continued to appear in Harper’s Weekly through the years of the war, Winslow Homer was not primarily a combat artist, like Alfred Waud or Frank Vizetelly. He preferred to draw the more intimate, quiet times of the soldier’s life. He also drew women and the effects of the war on the family and the home front. After 1862, he did not serve again as a “special,” but continued to visit the camps and battlefields, filling his sketchbook with drawings that he then turned into paintings in his New York studio. Yankee Sharpshooter (1862) is one such painting. It shows a Union sharpshooter in a tree, aiming through the scope mounted on his rifle. Praised by art critics for its powerful diagonal lines, Homer himself saw the picture as illustrating a tragedy. “I always had a horror of that branch of the service,” he said.

Prisoners at the Front 1866

His most familiar painting is that of Brigadier General Francis C. Bartow questioning Confederate captives, Prisoners at the Front. This scene has been parodied several times, most recently in Gettysburg, the movie. Homer took the painting with him when he went to Paris in 1867, for a year. It was exhibited in the Exposition Universelle during this time, and won excellent reviews.

Another of his paintings, Home Sweet Home, garnered great praise when it was shown at the National Academy of Design, in New York:

Winslow Homer is one of those few young artists who make a decided impression of their power with their very first contributions to the Academy. He at this moment wields a better pencil, models better, colors better, than many whom, were it not improper, we could mention as regular contributors to the Academy.

There is no clap-trap about it (the painting, Home Sweet Home). The delicacy and strength of emotion which reign throughout this picture are not surpassed in the whole exhibition. It is a work of real feeling, soldiers in camp listening to the evening band, and thinking of the wives and darlings far away. There is no strained effect in it, no sentimentality, but a hearty, homely actuality, broadly, freely, and simply worked out.

Although Winslow Homer’s work was critically acclaimed, his finances suffered a setback when he decided to give up illustrating and concentrate only on his painting, in 1875. His oils of African-American life, painted in the 1870s, made some patrons uncomfortable. His images were reminders of the differences brought by the war. Homer’s seascapes and pictures of women going about their work during the day, however, drew an appreciative audience. As with his war sketches, Winslow Homer preferred to paint the small, intimate moments in the lives around him.

Yankee Sharpshooter 1862

He slowly gained a devoted following with his rich portrayals of water and the sea, and when he died, in 1910, it was with the reputation of being one of America’s premier painters. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When I was searching for images of wounded Civil War veterans last winter, I found what has become my favorite Winslow Homer. It is titled “Empty Sleeve.” It was an illustration for Harper’s Weekly, August 1865. In this little drawing, much is said. A ride by the sea has turned tense: the reins are in her hands, not his. I could not help but think of all the loving relationships that needed to be redefined when men came home from the war.

I cannot help but think this continues today.

Winslow Homer’s Grave

2 Responses to Drawing the War, Part 4: Winslow Homer

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!