Race, War, and Winslow Homer


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A soldier in blue sits high on the branch of a pine tree. The barrel of his rifle, jutting hard across the canopy of green, is mounted with a lens that he holds close to his eye as he takes aim. We can’t see his face. Neither can the man he is about to kill, down below, hundreds of yards away, whether in the midst of battle or furtively leaving camp to fill canteens—many soldiers got shot this way—or simply lifting his head above fortifications to take a breath. The telescopic rifle, widely introduced in this country during the Civil War, allowed for attack with unprecedented stealth, a technological leap akin in our time to the military drone. In the spring of 1862, Winslow Homer observed the sharpshooting soldiers trained to use these weapons while encamped with the Union Army at the Virginia front. Homer, at twenty-six, was a professional artist-reporter, his drawings often reproduced in the illustrated press. He aspired, however, to be a painter. “Sharpshooter,” by reliable account his first oil painting, completed in 1863, was preceded in the public eye by his engraving of the same hawkeyed soldier in Harper’s Weekly, part of the excitement over the élite new unit’s efficacy and skill. It would be easy to assume that he shared the excitement—his soldier has a mesmerizing energy and focus—were it not for a randomly surviving letter he wrote decades later, recalling that the use of these rifles had struck him “as being as near murder as anything I ever could think of in connection with the army.” He added a quick drawing of an unsuspecting victim framed in a rifle’s crosshairs.

“Sharpshooter” was painted back in the safety of Homer’s studio, in New York City. He’d moved from his native Boston in 1859, using the job at Harper’s as security while enrolling in life-drawing classes (one didn’t draw naked bodies in art class in Boston) and taking a few lessons in painting technique from a transplanted Frenchman. Mostly, though, his idea of painting grew out of his magazine illustrations, and while some of this work was brashly political—in 1860, he depicted Frederick Douglass, in mid-oration, being expelled from a stage by anti-abolitionists—the majority were cheery anecdotes of contemporary life. The first work he exhibited, also in 1860, was a watercolor titled “Skating in Central Park,” which suggests the lightly amiable direction he was taking before the war gave him a subject and a purpose.

He visited the soldiers’ camps around Washington in the fall of 1861 but was not overly affected. He would have travelled to Europe after that, to learn more about painting, if he’d had the money. The transformation came with his Virginia trip the following year. For two or more months he was “without food 3 days at a time & all in camp either died or were carried away with typhoid fever,” his mother wrote to his younger brother. “He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him.” The paper trail for Homer’s trips to the front ends here. A new biography, “Winslow Homer: American Passage,” by William R. Cross (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), confidently adds to the general disagreement about where and when (or even whether) he went back. The chaotic Battle of the Wilderness? The devastation at Spotsylvania Court House? The long and catastrophic—for both sides—siege of Petersburg? His presence at these historic killing fields has been deduced primarily from the paintings and drawings he now began to turn out with quiet intensity, creating our richest artistic record of the Civil War.

Coinciding with the biography, the Metropolitan Museum’s grand yet thematically intent new Homer show, titled “Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents,” begins with a group of these paintings, and it’s stirring to see the young, relatively unschooled artist rise to eloquence in service of his broken country. The co-curator Sylvia Yount, setting out the show’s pointedly contemporary theme, writes, “A persistent fascination with struggle permeates Homer’s art, revealing lifelong concerns with race and the environment.” Homer can support these not so new claims easily, although the work is never rhetorical or preachy. A viewer coming to the exhibition from other American classics of the era in the Met’s galleries, like the famous mountain scenes by Bierstadt or Church, may initially feel puzzled by the emotional reserve, the understatement, even the smaller scale of these works. As a war painter, Homer was uncomfortable with battle scenes—he painted only one, a willfully unintelligible mayhem of men and trees—and at odds with the heroic posing of a European past. Several of his paintings simply give us weary, homesick men in camp, in the mud and the weather, enduring.

He even seemed to shy away from painting corpses, although their rarity in his work may have been partly strategic. Alexander Gardner’s photographs of fields strewn with the dead of Antietam, which drew huge crowds when exhibited in New York, in 1862, offered the lesson that the new art form, in its cold reality, could shock as paintings never could. Death, for Homer, is a single former Union soldier standing with his back to us, swinging a scythe against a field of wheat as tall and endless as the troops that fell at Antietam and the other battlefields. He executed the scene, titled “The Veteran in a New Field,” like a plainspoken realist—the high sunlight, the veteran’s rumpled shirt, the shadowed stalks of wheat—who couldn’t hide, try as he might, the dark and troubled heart of a poet. At some point, he changed his mind about what he wanted to portray. Painting out parts of a cradle scythe, the instrument used to harvest wheat at the time, he left his veteran wielding the anachronistically stark curve of a scythe that evoked images of the Grim Reaper. All flesh is grass. Yet Homer was never casual about his titles, and the veteran is also planting the earth anew. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares. Neither the painter nor we need choose a single meaning.

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Two paintings are set where Homer could never have gone, behind enemy lines. (The imaginative prerogatives of painting over photography are also many.) “Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg,” of 1864, shows a Confederate soldier who can endure no longer. Leaping wildly atop fortifications meant as shelter, he stands exposed against the open sky, shouting tauntingly in the direction of massed Yankee forces. A couple of distant puffs of gun smoke suggest the ending to this act of suicidal insanity—or insane bravery, perhaps, for there is something heroic in this awful figure, so very different from the sharpshooter, whose unremitting eye was reported to drive troops to nervous collapse.

The problematic figure here is not the quixotic Rebel, though, toward whom Homer extends a strained compassion, but a Black banjo player huddled behind the fortifications, strumming away, his face a minstrel caricature of big pink lips and rolling eyes. (Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, in the show’s catalogue, notes that Homer would likely have used the same burnt cork and lampblack that minstrel players used to blacken their faces.) This figure presses the question: How far did Homer’s compassion extend in these years?

In the spontaneous act of drawing, his eye was perfectly honest, sketching Black men in the Union Army—a mule-team driver, men riding a baggage train—with individuality and dignity. Even in the more public sphere of magazine illustration, Black men—from Douglass to a figure seated on what looks to be a powder keg, illustrating “Dixie”—are few but untouched by minstrelsy. Questions have been raised about a lithograph called “Our Jolly Cook”: Is the frantically dancing Black man performing for his own racially clichéd pleasure or to meet the demands of an audience of grim-faced white soldiers? Homer brought Black soldiers to the fore in two substantive paintings, “The Bright Side” and “Army Boots,” which, while they don’t trade in physical stereotypes, show the men at rest, all but one lying down—or, as Shaw and others see it, purveying “tropes of Black indolence.” It seems fair to say that the painter who would end up “breaking artistic stereotypes about the Negro,” in the words of Alain Locke, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and a scholar of African American art, was still finding his way. His early depictions of Black men were variable. Whether owing to some personal acquaintance, however, or to the absence of fear, or to simple empathy, he never wavered in the dignity he accorded Black women.

It is doubtful whether Homer was ever near the Confederate prison known as Andersonville, in southwestern Georgia. But, within months of the war’s end, the artist, like everyone in the North who could read a newspaper, knew about the brutal conditions that ultimately resulted in the death there of thirteen thousand captured Union soldiers. The camp’s commander was put on very public trial, and was hanged. Homer made no attempt to show the prison itself. Yet his response was as large in intellectual scope and feeling as it is visually restrained and indirect. “Near Andersonville,” completed in 1866, shows a young Black woman, modestly but neatly dressed and wearing a white apron, standing in the doorway of a rough-hewn dwelling, looking to the side, deep in thought. Only at the edge of the painting do we see the soldiers she has seen already, captive Yankees being led off by Rebel forces, the triumphant Confederate flag flying overhead.

Without bloodshed, or brutality, Homer conveys the stakes of Union losses—the stakes of the war—in the face of one enslaved woman. She is depicted with neither the pitifulness nor the titillating nudity that made the female slave an attractive subject to many artists. (And to audiences. Hiram Powers’s“The Greek Slave,” a prettily chained white marble nude, was one of the most popular works of the nineteenth century. Even Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s sympathetic bust of a Black woman, titled “Why Born Enslaved!,” completed in 1873 and the centerpiece of another current Met show, is bound with ropes that frame one bared breast.) This woman is all consciousness. We are drawn in by the workings of her mind, her difficult but masked emotions—she couldn’t risk letting any reaction show—as, the Mona Lisa of the Civil War, she weighs her future and the future of her country.

“I think that it would probably kill me to have such a thing appear,” Homer wrote to an inquiring biographer, in 1908, two years before he died, at the age of seventy-four. “And as the most interesting part of my life is of no concern to the public I must decline to give you any particulars in regard to it.” Biographers are a fairly undiscourageable group, and the first biography of the artist was duly published in 1911. There was not a lot to work with, aside from the work itself. Homer’s two brothers volunteered some stories, but there was, otherwise, scant personal material. He was closely attached to his parents and to his older brother. He never married and had no known romantic relationships; the record offers little even about close friendships. There are no diaries, and hardly any letters of substance. (Homer’s moral condemnation of telescopic rifles is one of the few examples we have of serious thought put into words.) No protégés, no public life. Clement Greenberg, dismissing a later Homer biography, in 1944, blamed the fact that the book was “hard reading” on Homer, since he had “practically no life aside from his art” and “no inner life worth mentioning.” This was, of course, just what Homer would have wanted. Yet intrepid biographers have pressed on, drawn by the siren song of all he did instead of living.

Cross’s scrupulous new book is devoted to Homer as both man and artist and is largely a pleasure to read, despite the inevitable difficulties of the subject: call him repressed; call him, as Cross does, “a misfit by nature” or even a “human periscope,” who liked to observe others without being seen. Cross tries to circumvent these difficulties by placing the life in a wider context, particularly in Homer’s early years, when abolitionism was ablaze in Boston and in Cambridge, where the boy grew up, exposed to mounting outcries about the evils of slavery. Homer’s family was middle class but struggled to remain so, financially and socially. His father, Charles, a proud man, seems to have failed in every business venture he tried; his mother, Henrietta, a gifted watercolor artist, had a wealthy brother who helped them (however humiliatingly) get through. Devoutly Christian, the pair initially attended two different churches: hers was strongly pro-abolitionist, his strongly against, a position fundamentally aligned with the economic interests of Massachusetts. But with Winslow’s birth, in 1836, Henrietta joined her husband’s church, a move that seemed to go beyond awakened wifely duty. Winslow was named for their preacher, who invoked Scripture to claim that abolitionists would “fill the land with violence and blood.”

How the young man managed such personal and political discord is unknown. Cross, whose scruples sometimes lead to a Homer-like reticence, refuses even to ask questions. (Is this how Homer learned to keep his thoughts to himself? Or why in his adult life he stayed away from church?) By the time he was seventeen, he’d left high school and set to work in a Boston lithography shop. He may already have had hopes of painting, but hopes became certain plans six years later, when he arrived in New York. Here again, Cross seeks to provide a wider context, and while the material remains thin, one is grateful for every scrap that shows Homer living as a painter among painters, joining clubs and sharing thoughts in a downtown vie de bohème filled with excitement about selling paintings and (more often) worries about not selling them.

Settling in Greenwich Village for some twenty years, he rubbed shoulders with such close neighbors—often with studios in the same building—as Church and Bierstadt and, most important, the lesser known Eastman Johnson, who preceded Homer in treating African American subjects with sympathy. It is extraordinary to think of the human periscope having dinner with Johnson and John Frederick Kensett at the Waverly Inn, or regularly attending exhibitions. “What I remember best is the smell of paint,” he recalled of these years, which extended through the eighteen-seventies. “I used to love it in a picture gallery.”

Speculation about why he turned toward solitude—that is, inevitably, about his love life—has run the gamut. Was he homosexual and in hiding? The fact that there is “no evidence” (as Cross notes) of a relationship with a specific man means little, in the absence of evidence of any kind. In his work, the rendering of the male body lacks the overt eroticism of Eakins or Sargent (or, for that matter, of Michelangelo), but some critics (particularly Thomas Hess) have perceived it there, and, in any case, almost nothing about Homer is overt. A photograph of him and a friend, Albert Kelsey, both rather dandified and evidently close, is hardly evidence, but a nude drawing of Kelsey, however comic in added details, goes some way toward justifying speculation. Yet Homer’s conflicts show signs of being even more complex.

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