Peter Wood, Duke University professor emeritus, spoke to our group on a variety of topics surrounding the background on Winslow Homer, his personal life, his usual styles, and some examples of his work including outdoor, childhood scenes, wind, and seascapes. Homer’s art skills led to him being recruited by the illustrated weeklies during the Civil War and his famous 1866 painting of prisoners confirmed his status as a preeminent American painter. As Wood pointed out however, Homer also painted African American subjects, and critics and historians alike did not know what to make of these works of art because art historians knew very little about the reconstruction period and historians knew little of Homer’s work.
We were fortunate to be able to travel to the Newark Museum to hear Professors Peter Wood and Sarah Burns discuss art and art history and the nature and challenge of making interdisciplinary connections. In addition, this beautiful small museum holds some wonderful pieces, including the main focus of our morning discussion, Winslow Homer’s “Near Andersonville.” (Link and scroll down to “A Living Painting” for information on podcasts)
As Professor Wood pointed out, Homer did paint a number of watercolors and oils that used African Americans as central pieces or subjects – “The Gulf Stream,” 1899 is an example and Wood has written and spoken on this piece and its possible larger meanings since about 1981. More importantly, this painting sparked Wood’s interest in the portrayal of blacks in Homer paintings. A prime example would be “Weaning the Calf,” 1875 – is it a simple c bucolic childhood scene or a reconstruction era piece as commentary?
To better understand the possibilities, Professor Wood offered us a number of background observations on Homer, starting us with some brief biographical comments and then examining a piece entitled “Arguments of the Chivalry,” a lithograph produced in 1856, that is a comment on the fate of Charles Sumner. At the time, Homer was a lithographer’s apprentice working on sheet music, but this piece was perhaps a sign of what was to comes from Homer in terms of adding meaning on multiple levels. Homer’s early work included pieces in
Harper’s Weekly representing Abraham Lincoln in an engraving based on the Cooper Union photograph by Matthew Brady and “Expulsion of Negroes and Abolitionists from Tremont Temple” , printed on December 15, 1860. Two additional examples include “The Seceding Mississippi Delegation” released on February 2, 1861 and “Dixie,” a pencil and gray water color from November 23, 1861 in which the keg label reads “contraband.”
Black southern culture was new to both soldiers and artists alike and there is some question as to how the public might have viewed portrayals like Homer’s “A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac” or “Pay Day in the Army of the Potomac”. Wood argued that Homer was making, in some instances, deep comments about the presence of blacks in relation to this war. The latter image, for example, seems to be a clear commentary on Abraham Lincoln’s role as the ‘sutler’ and George McClellan’s irritation at Lincoln’s decision to give out ‘supplies’ (emancipation) to blacks. In a related comment, Wood recommended that we examine a book by Glenn David Brasher about the peninsula campaign and how the black population was caught in between the two warring governments and armies. Professor Wood offered an additional possibly multi-layered meaning in an engraving “Shell in Rebel Trenches”, January 17, 1863. Is Homer putting you inside the head of both blacks and getting you behind enemy lines? Given the date of the engraving, is it possible that Homer is conceiving of the Emancipation Proclamation as a “cultural bombshell” and therefore that particular metaphor is used in this engraving? Homer’s experience at Harper’s Weekly working alongside someone like Thomas Nast may have influenced him somewhat. Was Homer using symbolism he learned on the job?
The two pictures “Prisoners from the Front” and “Near Andersonville” went on sale within weeks of each other in 1866. The former was sold and speculation is that people could accept it as representing the Civil War they understood and “knew.” The latter image came into the hands of Sarah Louise Kellogg and she died shortly thereafter. The painting stayed in the family and eventually disappeared into a dusty attic. Wood wonders whether the subject matter of the painting impacted the possibility of its sale (indeed, there is speculation as to whether Homer simply gave the painting to Kellogg). As we wrapped up our conversation on the meanings of these images and Homer’s choices in subject matter, we asked several questions. Was Homer complicit in burial of the deeper meaning of his works? Did people/consumers want him to move away from this kind of discussion?
Wood speculates that Homer has not forgotten the needs of discussing questions of the fate of black Americans. When Homer paints “The Gulf Stream,” he is spending time with a black man whom he hired to take care of his father in Maine – there are photographs of them together and he was a former slave…what does it all mean? Several of Homer’s paintings in the 1870s like “Contraband,” 1875 at the Canajohaire Library or “The Watermelon Boys,” 1876 at Cooper-Hewitt, utilize black figures and white together. In “Taking a Sunflower to Teacher” (Georgia Museum of Art) Homer makes use of a butterfly as a transformative entity, suggesting that the young black child in the image is emblematic of the change coming to both south and north. We know that school is involved from both the title and the placement of the school slate which holds Homer’s signature.
One of the final questions we considered was whether Homer shied away from controversy by muting his imagery and/or the meaning behind his chosen subjects. Two examples that raise this question would be “Dressing for the Carnival,” 1877 and “A Visit from the Old Mistress,” 1876. In the former, we wonder whether the end of reconstruction is symbolized by the closed gate and why does this appear to be the only painting of Homer’s of adult black males in the United States? In the latter Homer is exploring the future relations between former slaves and their owner. While it represents a confrontation, there is a sense of accommodation as well. So, if he is addressing these kinds of issues, even in a subtle manner, does that indicate a shying away?
Part Two will focus on Lily Martin Spencer’s works of art in general and a Martin painting at the Newark Museum entitled “The War Spirit at Home.”