Tuesday, April 12, 2011
This week marks the one-hundred fifty year anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. It all kicked off on April 12th, 1861 with the secessionist firing on fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. Of course, people didn't just wake up on that morning and say, "Hey! Let's have a war!" it took decades of bad blood between the north and the south to get to that point. By April of 1861, war fever was at it's highest pitch. Young men born in the 1840's only knew of war from the stories their grandfathers told about the War of 1812, or from seeing woodcuts of battles of the Mexican War, like this one--
Winslow Homer was a young man at the start of the war, too. He didn't choose to enlist, but he went to war as a civilian artist correspondent. Back then, photographs could not be reproduced in print, so the major newspapers had artists record the scene, and then used engravers to make woodcuts from the art work.
The 1860's was a romantic, sentimental era. Artwork was in the Hudson River school; full of soft, serene idyllic views of nature. Language was flowery and lofty. Were we to talk to a young man of 1860, we'd think the guy was the most pretentious pretty boy we ever met! The sentimentality of the day was shown in prints like this one.
The realities of war were not to be discussed in polite society. Folks at home saw Currier and Ives prints of bloodless battles fought by heroes in unsoiled blue uniforms with bright brass buttons:
The truth of the matter is that it was a war like all the others ever fought; a grotesque, bloody slaughter full of pain, misery and death. And there was plenty of death to go around.
And at Gettysburg, where in three days of fighting, over fifty thousand young men became casualties of war.
Winslow Homer knew that war. As a New Englander will be, he was a pragmatic, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. So, it comes as no surprise that he decided not to show the romantic ideal of the soldier, but the regular guy he saw in camp. These are people we can relate to, even one hundred fifty years later.
Bored young men sitting around the camp, waiting for the next battle. Occupying their time with trivial tasks, and wondering all the while if they will ever make it home alive.
Homer drew battle scenes that were used in the papers, but he shined when he turned his focus on the individual. I believe the best Homer depiction of warfare is the small, quiet painting The Sharpshooter-
Sharpshooters were reviled in the Civil War. They were considered nothing more than assassins and murderers. Soldiers considered it unmanly to hide and kill-- real men stood out in the open and faced their enemy. Homer shows the tension of the moment before the trigger is squeezed, dooming another victim who would never know what hit him. It is as far from Currier and Ives as one can get.
By the time Homer depicted the front lines in this painting from late in the war, the American public had long grown weary of its horrors. The rebel soldier standing on the parapet, daring the enemy to kill him and put him out of his misery is emblematic not only of the Confederacy, but the rest of the country as well.
Winslow Homer went on, of course, to be one of--if not the-- greatest American painters. His depiction of a former soldier working on his farm is another example where there is more than meets the eye;
After seeing so many of his fellow soldiers mowed down like wheat by the reapers scythe, this man has put aside his military accoutrements and picked up his life where he left off.
Only Winslow Homer would have thought of that.