In conjunction with the Maine Civil War Trail, a state-wide series of special displays at more than 20 institutions commemorating the sesquicentennial of the conflict, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) presents a focused exhibition on the war-related imagery of the American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
On view at the PMA, in Portland, Maine, from September 7 through December 8, Winslow Homer’s Civil War features 29 wood engravings and other prints drawn from the PMA’s permanent collection. The exhibition will examine the artist’s unique vision of this event and its profound impact on American society.
Widely regarded as one of America’s most original artists, Homer first gained national recognition for his images about the Civil War that appeared in Harper’s Weekly and other popular magazines during the 1860s. In an era before the mass reproduction of photographs in the media, such illustrations functioned as the primary visual documents of current events and, hence, played an important role in shaping the perceptions of American audiences. Armed with a reportorial impulse and a keen eye for social observation, Homer made several trips to the Union front in Virginia in 1861 and 1862.
This first-hand experience informed a body of illustrations he produced for the popular press, as well as his earliest paintings. Although the artist witnessed combat, he generally did not portray dramatic battle scenes or individual leaders according to the heroizing pictorial conventions of military art. Instead, his images focus on modern aspects of warfare, daily life in camp, and the experiences of rank-and-file soldiers.
For example, The Army of the Potomac-A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), one of Homer’s canonical Civil War pictures, provides incisive commentary on technological developments in weaponry that allowed death to be delivered from a distance, with anonymity and brutal efficiency, from the barrel of a sharpshooter’s rifle fitted with a telescopic sight.
In addition, Homer examined life on the home front-particularly, the activities and contributions of women-and the impact of the war on postbellum American society. Our Watering-Places-The Empty Sleeve At Newport (1865) thematizes the shifting gender roles occasioned by the Civil War. In this leisure scene of a couple riding in a carriage, the woman takes the reins from her mate, a veteran who lost an arm in battle, as a potent symbol of her expanded independence and capabilities gained during men’s wartime absences.
To elucidate the full range of Homer’s war-related subjects, the prints featured in the exhibition are organized into thematic groups about life at the front, African Americans and the war, women’s war efforts, and post-war life.
There is also a section that explores the technical process of wood engraving and the context of Homer’s illustrations in the popular press. From the outset of his professional career, the artist demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of pictorial narrative that enabled him to tell stories that were informative, easily legible, and visually engaging. In addition to showcasing his perceptive commentary on a watershed historical event and its effects on contemporary life, Winslow Homer’s Civil War reveals his interest in themes of mortality, gender and race relations, and modern social patterns-themes that would continue to preoccupy the artist for the remainder of his acclaimed career.