Peaceful pastoral scenes or scenes from farming fields have been popular art subjects for centuries. However, in both European and American art galleries something sinister can threaten the peaceful fields. Sometimes, it is a serpent in the grain or tree or a lurking beast in the shadows of the woods. Perhaps reflective of a Bible story or popular parables. American artists often painted farming scenes to depict the abundance of crops in the new nation, sometimes creating straightforward art, other times complicated metaphors for happenings of their eras.
In 1865, Winslow Homer painted and displayed an oil on canvas piece which he called “The Veteran in a New Field.” The painting measured 24 1/8 by 38 1/8 inches and shows a solitary figure reaping in a wheat field. In the lower right corner of the painting, a dark military jacket and canteen have been cast aside. Early critiques of the art complained about the height of the wheat and the man’s reaping tool, saying, “A very insufficient and headlong piece of work, slap-dash execution enough in cornfield and suggested trees;…Moreover, we are inclined to quarrel with the veteran for having forgotten, in his four years or less of campaigning, that it is with a cradle and not with a scythe alone, that he should attack standing grain.”[i] However, those literal criticisms miss the symbolism that Homer may have been trying to impart to his viewers in 1865.
Homer had seen war, though he had not been a soldier. Instead, the young artist went to camps and battlefields as a newspaper artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. Born in 1836 and raised in Massachusetts, Homer had briefly studied the art of oil painting on the eve of the Civil War. His earliest exhibited oil paintings appeared for public viewing in 1863. His more famous war paintings were created after the Civil War, but were based on scenes that he witnessed and pondered.
Homer’s “The Veteran in a New Field” offers reflection and symbolism, especially since he purposely depicted a Civil War soldier. The soldier returned to farming might remind 19th Century viewers of the Roman story of Cincinnatus, the citizen soldier who returned to his fields and refused to be king. It also might have drawn their thoughts toward Biblical Old Testament passages like Isaiah 2:4 or Micah 4:3 which promise a day of judgment and peace when God “shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”[ii]
The solitary figure is almost overwhelmed by the height of the grain in the painting. Perhaps the tall grain symbolizes a field left untended while he was away at war. Or maybe it represents the great task still remaining as the nation tried to reunite, make sense of the war, and forge the meaning of freedom.
The idea of loss might also be represented in the scene. The veteran wields a sickle and not a reaping cradle, perhaps symbolic of Grim Death and his sickle. Sheaves of wheat were sometimes used as a mourning symbol in mid-19th Century America, and perhaps could symbolize the memories of death that this former soldier would have to work through as he returned to civilian life.
Wheat fields had been literal battlefields during the past four years, and Homer may have been trying to evoke memories of those places. One of the most infamous wheatfields-turned-battleground was Rose’s Wheatfield at Gettysburg. Some soldiers remembered that location and the battle on July 2, 1863:
We were the first troops to the field, and the yellow grain was still standing. I noticed how the ears of wheat flew in the air all over the field as they were cut off by the enemy’s bullets.[iii]
We were in this wheatfield and the grain stood almost breast high. The Rebs had their slight protection [a stonewall], but we were in the open, without a thing better than a wheat straw to catch a Minnie bullet that weighed an ounce. Of course, our men began to tumble. They lay where they fell, or, if able started for the rear.[iv]
Would memories of war like this have been in the mind of Homer’s Veteran as he reaped his wheatfield in 1865?
In the 1870’s, Winslow Homer painted several additional scenes of wheatfields. He did not visually or by title tie them to the Civil War or to veterans, but they are interesting to compare to “The Veteran in the Field.” All three of these other wheatfield paintings (there may be more, but these are the ones I’ve found so far) place the viewer much closer to the subject in the painting’s perspective, reducing the solitary aloofness that The Veteran visually offers.
“In The Wheatfield”, created in 1873, shows a young girl in a plain dress and simple hat, looking shyly at the viewer as delicate little flowers rise in the foreground. She wears a pinner apron that nearly blends into her dress and the blue ribbon around the crown of her hat is particularly noticeable. Perhaps the clasp of her hands suggests a passivity or a resignation to the moment or life’s circumstances?
1876’s “The Song of the Lark” shows a man pausing in his work and in the act of listening. Similar to “The Veteran,” he holds a long sickle. This painting lacks military evidences, but perhaps it is not wrong to stretch the imagination and wonder if this could be “The Veteran” figure a few years later—looking a little hopeful and not overwhelming by a tall crop of wheat…or memories…or a difficult future?
Finally, “The Reaper” from 1878 shows a fresh-faced young man smiling and sickle reaping through a field of grain. The perspective is open and bright. Tiny flowers sprinkle the foreground and in the background, little birds perch and fluttering, suggesting the sound of their warbling should be added to the scene. A canopy of blue and gray clouds fills the sunny sky which dominates the scene, suggesting a hopeful and expanding future through the division of the canvas from the ground in the painting.
Homer’s “The Veteran in a New Field” clearly had intended symbolism and direct ties to the Civil War and invited thoughts and commentary with its appearance in late 1865. Whether the artist intended any war or post-war perspective in these three other wheatfield paintings is not as clear, but looking at all four paintings together does seem to tell a story of war and returning peace with its own challenges. “We were in this wheatfield…” and the stories of war, returning soldiers, contemplation, rising hope, or cheerful farming may be seen in these pieces of a former war correspondent’s art.
[i] Marc Simpson, editor, Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988), Page 84.
[ii] Micah 4:3, Holy Bible, King James Version.
[iii] Voices of the Civil War: Gettysburg, (New York: Time Life Books, 1995), Page 89.
[iv] Charles A. Fuller, Personal Recollections of the War of 1861, (1906), Pages 63-64.