150 years ago this month, the American Civil War began four years of battle that claimed almost a million lives and led to the abolition of slavery. Not surprisingly, the war impacted artists and photographers, who produced shocking images that revealed scenes that were far from romanticized. Many people disapprove of remembering such a horrible event, demonstrated by the reaction certain works received at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Lincoln bicentennial commission. Despite the silence of many American art museums, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is currently organizing a survey of the war’s effects on American art that will open in November 2012, which will include works such as Winslow Homer’s Prisoner’s From the Front. Winslow Homer’s War-inspired works cannot be ignored, as many of them made his reputation. Not only did the they allow him to develop as an artist, but also his works had a great impact on citizens across the country. The NBMAA is proud to organize an exhibition in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
Winslow Homer and the American Civil War will be on view from April 15 to May 22, 2011. The show will highlight Homer’s Civil War illustrations made between 1861 and 1864, and showcase over forty wood engravings as well as one major painting. Skirmish in the Wilderness portrays the Battle of the Wilderness and is one of Homer’s most significant works created as a result of his experiences with the Civil War. This battle was one of the bloodiest, and was an early example of “guerilla warfare.”
Winslow Homer’s career began at age 19 when he apprenticed for a commercial lithographer. In the 1850s, he began working for Harper’s Weekly, where he created line art drawings from photographs. Because pictures were printed by stamping them from large woodblocks, artists had to first convert photographs to line art drawings. Eventually, Harper’s sent Homer to actual events, such as Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, to create illustrations from realtime events as they were unfolding.
During the Civil War, Homer was a full-time picture correspondent, and he experienced brutal battles that were void of heroic charges. He depicted the reality of the war, which consisted of ragged and disorganized armies that were not consistently fighting, and Homer did not neglect the important role played by women nurses and doctors as well as African Americans. Three years as an eyewitness to the war allowed Homer’s work to evolve and his style to emerge, leading to eminent works such as Skirmish in the Wilderness.
It depicts the first meeting between the troops of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant in what was a blind battle fought in a dense forest.
Lee forced the confrontation to occur in the woods due to Grant’s greater number of soldiers. Although artillery was no use in the thick wood, the vicious combat was exacerbated by brush fires sparked by gunfire. Homer is thought to have made the oil panting from sketches he drew while traveling with the Union army. The work is not heroic, but reveals the reality of combat, as soldiers are clumped together on the right, opening fire in the center, and dying wounded in the foreground in what appears to be a noisy scene of vicious conflict.
Even though he was an illustrator of war, scenes of violence and chaos were not typical of Homer. By 1875, his work as a commercial lithographer was over, and he focused solely on painting. In the 1880s, Homer moved to Maine, where his paintings captured rural subjects from the mountains to the serenity of the sea and coast. Whether or not we want to forget the Civil War, we cannot forget the evocative war-time work of Winslow Homer.
What do you think of Homer’s depictions of the Civil War? How do they compare to the Matthew Brady photographs from history textbooks? Which do you prefer? Why? Is it worth remembering this bloody internal conflict? Or do we leave it in the past as an extremely painful chapter in our history?
Make sure to see the NBMAA Civil War exhibition, coming next month!