Provocateur: Winslow Homer’s Illustrations of the Civil War
February 5- March 15, 2015
Long before Winslow Homer became one America’s premier landscape painters, he began his career as an illustrator for popular magazines. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Harper’s Weekly commissioned Homer to cover the conflict. In October of that year, the young artist traveled with the Army of the Potomac for several weeks in order illustrate scenes from the war front, spending two additional months with the army in 1862. During this time he sketched both battles he witnessed and camp life, which became source material for the illustrations he produced for pro-Union magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for the duration of the war. Homer also published scenes from the home front, be they images of war manufacturing or the war’s impact on civilian life. After the conflict ended in 1865, Homer turned his eye to the physical and psychological effect that the bloody war of brothers had on veterans and their families.
Assistant Professor of American art history Sascha Scott and her graduate students, in consultation with Curator of Collections David Prince, developed this exhibition of Homer’s Civil War illustrations as part of a seminar entitled Graduate Research Methods and Scholarly Writing. Through research and careful analysis, students have added depth to our understanding of Homer’s powerful war and postwar images by considering period conceptions of race and gender, Civil War political and economic debates, and widespread anxieties over the emotional, social, and environmental costs of war. Whether examining Homer’s depictions of battlefields, camp life, the home front, or veterans, students found that the artist’s images often challenged dominant narratives about the war. The soldiers in Homer’s Thanksgiving feasts seem more anxious than thankful; his battlefields are not platforms for glory, but rather convey the exhaustion of men and nature; his military camps are not spaces of comradery, but rather are structured by martial, racial, and social hierarchy; his women were not merely angels of the home, but worked in factories where their lives were put at risk; and his veterans are pathetic heroes who are reminded of the traumas of war at every turn. Homer refused to present a war that ripped the nation apart in a blindly romantic light. His Civil War illustrations confront viewers with the war’s ambiguities and complexities. They are enduring because they asked questions without providing easy answers to a conflict that left the nation torn and scarred long after reunification.
Assistant Professor, Art and Music Histories