American Realism
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American Realism


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241 Pages

You can change the print size of this book


Urban realism, snow-covered streets of New York, boxing matches, children on the banks of a river, the painters of the Ash Can School preferred realistic images. Their paintings are a true hymn to noise and sensations. This unconventional movement enabled the birth of a true national artistic identity which broke free from the establishment. The Ash Can School resolutely promoted the affirmation of the modernist current of American art. Edward Hopper, who was a student of Robert Henri, embraced the principles of this movement and brought them to another level.



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Text: Gerry Souter

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I m a g e - B a r

© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
© Confidential Concepts, Worldwide, USA
Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
© Charles Burchfield
© Everett Shinn
© John Sloan Estate, Artists Rights Society, New York, USA
Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
American Gothic, 1930 by Grant Wood
All rights reserved by the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
© Andrew Wyeth

No parts of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright
holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on the works reproduced lies
with the respective photographers. Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to
establish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.

ISBN: 978-1-78310-767-4Gerry Souter

A m e r i c a n
R e a l i s m

C o n t e n t s

WINSLOW HOMER (1836-1910)
THOMAS EAKINS (1844-1916)
Robert Henri
Everett Shinn
George Luks
William Glackens
John Sloan
George Bellows
Summary of the Ashcan Artists
EDWARD HOPPER (1882-1967)
GRANT WOOD (1892-1942)
ANDREW WYETH (1917-2009)
Frederic Remington, Boat House at Ingleneuk, c. 1903-1907.
Oil on academy board, 30.5 x 45.7 cm.
Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


The concept of ‘Realism’ as applied to a style of art embraces too much with too little. You might as
well try to define ‘Dance’ without looking at ballet, tap, jazz, clog or folk. It is true in art there is
Cubism, Futurism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and many more lesser ‘isms’ and each
bears certain characteristics, or cleaves to certain constraints or expansions that define the style. Each
of these styles has practitioners who themselves are defined by the results of their identification with
the specific creative method. Each painter has also brought an individual contribution to the
interpretation of the style. The key differences between these ‘isms’ and ‘Realism’ is time, place and
state of mind.

A ‘Realist’ painter is the beneficiary of a legacy stretching back to the earliest cave paintings that
describe the activities of our most primitive ancestors who ‘saw’ giant elk, mammoths, cave bears
and their own humanoid brothers. They ‘saw’ the spears flying through the air, observed the graceful
arch of the antelope’s neck and the hump of the buffalo’s back. They painted exactly what they saw,
subjects standing still or in motion, in coloured clays mixed with animal fat and tallow. No one is
sure if the result was pure journalism of observation or using magical suggestion to assure a
successful hunt. The sophistication of interpretation wound its way through the centuries from the
stylised propaganda scribed into the walls of tombs and temples to the sprawling epic of the Bayeux
Tapestry documenting the Norman-french depredations on the shores of England. Religious faith was
reinforced by depictions of stories from holy books such as the Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad-Gita and
the Analects of Confucius.

Realism has always dealt with the baggage carried by the interpreter of the scene. The practice of
realistic painting produced an elitist class schooled in effects and techniques, and secret paint- and
preservation-formulations, like alchemists granting eternal life to reality seen through their eyes and
granting reality to scenes played out in their impassioned minds. Masters of technique becameelevated in society and gathered together to protect their franchise with orders, academies and
societies where membership was seen as a goal, an achievement, a sacred trust. To display their work
or commission their skills bestowed a cachet, a symbol of piety, good taste and social responsibility.

Of course there were the malcontents: Dürer, Da Vinci, David, Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix,
Caravaggio; artists whose passion flowed from their brushes and etching needles and crayons to show
there was more to realism than polished technique. When the American Colonies of the New World
finally sought the trappings of civilisation after their Revolution and Westward Expansion, the
Tripolitain War and the War of 1812 and the border wars with Mexico, both a native art and the arts
of Europe began staking out new ground. All this civilisation arrived just in time for the birth of
photography in the 1840s. The capturing of reflected light in an infinite scale of values preserved in
silver halide crystals and fixed with hyposulphite forever democratised reality upside down and
backwards on glass and paper, and held a mirror up to nature with the click of a mechanical shutter.
William Metcalf, Gloucester Harbour, 1895.
Oil on canvas, 66.4 x 74.3 cm.
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College,
Amherst, Massachusetts, gift of George D. Pratt.

And what did ‘true artists’ attempt to do with this brave new medium? Why, forced it to look like a
painting, of course, and then hurried off to form orders, academies and societies and create rules of
recognition for a ‘truly artistic’ photograph. The science and mechanics of photography originated in
Europe, but its commercialisation, artistic pretension and ultimate creative potential were achieved in
the United States, in the nation of immigrants who inherited the need to challenge the status quo.
They passed along that need in their genes. The European wave of academic realism subsided at the
hands of the nineteenth-century French Impressionists and tumbled into the larger-than-life
theatricality and geographically diverse American scenes and lifestyles. Photography’s faithful
translation of light and shadow into a reproducible image freed painters to pursue their imaginations.
They could manipulate any of the elements: colour, line, perspective, placement, addition and
subtraction, making the scene their reality. Realism as a monolithic, lock-step, strictly governed
method of painterly visualisation shattered into nuances of interpretation.

Where you painted could make you a Regional Realist. What you painted might label you a Genre
Realist, or who you painted classified your work as Portrait Realist – or maybe a Portrait Regionalist
Realist if you painted Native Americans in the West, or sea captains on the East Coast. There were
Realists who brushed the style of French Impressionism into every canvas and Academic Realists who
dragged the dog-eared mechanics featured in Old World European salons into scenes of American
life. Some Realists successfully stepped back and forth across the line between commercial
illustration and fine art. Others took realistic subjects into the realms of surrealism or shaved themedium to such a fine point; the results of which challenged the photographic arts.
John Sloan, Gloucester Harbour, 1916.
Oil on canvas, 66 x 81.3 cm.
Syracuse University Art Collection, Syracuse, New York.

Of the variations cited, there are even further nuances that mock the concept of ‘American Realism’
as an all-embracing style. What remains are American Realist artists, each facing subject matter that is
part of the fabric of the American scene. The result of their efforts is determined by the filtering of
their perceptions through their individual intellects, skill sets, training, regional influences, ethnic
influences and basic nurturing. If there is any binding together it is within the tradition of Realist Art
in the United States, which accepts such a range from Winslow Homer’s poetic watercolours of the
1860s to the haunting minutiae of Andrew Wyeth and melancholy light of Edward Hopper in the
1950s and 1960s.

This book presents a cross-section of American Realist artists spanning more than one hundred years
of art. It begins as some artists struggle with the influences of Europe, and other home-grown
painters bring their nineteenth-century American scenes to life, and ends as today’s generation of
Realist painters co-exist with American Modernism and absorb this new freedom into the latest
incarnation of their art. The range of talent is exceptional, touching on the broadest interpretation of
the American Realist artist. In examining this cross-section, we can better understand and appreciate
the amazing diversity and the infinitely variable Realist styles.
Eastman Johnson, Woman in White Dress, c. 1875.
Oil on paper board, 56.8 x 35.6 cm.
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco,
California, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III.


By the 1840s, the United States was still a work in progress. Its population had leaped 33 per cent
from the previous decade to 17,063,353 with four states exceeding one million residents: New York,
Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. Texas signed up for annexation in 1845 and the first immigrant
wagon trains headed west over the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. In December of that same year,
President James K. Polk told Congress it was the country’s “manifest destiny” to pursue expansion
west and vigorously uphold the Monroe Doctrine.

These great events were just beginning to be communicated across the country by Samuel F.B.
Morse’s telegraph, proven on 24 May 1844 with a message sent from Washington D.C. to Baltimore,
Maryland that read, “What God hath wrought”. A somewhat less momentous event was taking place
in a Boston studio as a twenty-year-old Eastman Johnson struggled to learn the mechanics of crayon
and gum arabic in the art of stone lithography. This was journeyman work, a profession in the printing
industry and his father had apprenticed him to the studio by to learn a useful trade.

Young Johnson was born in 1824, in Lovell, a small town near Maine’s western border, the last of
eight children born to Mary Kimball Chandler to Phillip Carrigan Johnson. Following Eastman’s
sisters, Harriet, Judith, Mary, Sarah, Nell and his brother Reuben, he was also well down the line
from first-born, Commodore Phillip Carrigan Johnson Jr. As the family moved from Lovell to
Fryeburg, a former frontier outpost in 1762, and to Augusta, Maine’s capital city on the Kennebec
River, the patriarch Johnson climbed the ladder of success. From being a successful businessman he
ascended to the post of Maine’s Secretary of State and eventually moved on up to influence in
Washington D.C. as Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair of the U.S.
Navy. It wasn’t difficult to obtain an apprenticeship; Eastman’s gift for drawing and observation
made the job a good fit.

At the age of twenty-one Eastman moved to Washington D.C. in 1845 and established himself as a
portraitist, eventually producing images of such notables as orator Daniel Webster and Dolly
Madison, wife of President James Madison. Moving on to Boston the following year, his subtle use
of line and tone learned at the stone soon brought him portrait commissions such as the likeness of a
youthful Charles Sumner commissioned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The famed poet gave Eastman’s career a considerable boost with requested drawings of Longfellow’s
influential friends and family, including poet Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anne Longfellow Pierce, Charles
Longfellow, Ernest Longfellow, Mary Longfellow Greenleaf and Cornelius Conway Felton, soon to
be president of Harvard University. Johnson worked in Boston for three years, but he felt he needed
more training in the fine arts. It was not until 1848 that he created his first oil painting, a portrait of
his grandmother.

In 1849, Johnson travelled across the Atlantic to Germany and enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy,
an influential realist school created in the early nineteenth century. He was accepted into the studio of
the American expatriate artist, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. While the school was noted for its painters
who turned out realist landscape allegories and historical subjects, just before Johnson arrived manyof its students had been politically involved in social protest, manning the barricades as part of the
Burgwehr citizen army. The revolution of 1848-49 forced Frederick William IV to grant a
constitution uniting the Prussian States into a single entity. Eastman joined a number of American
artists who passed through this school, which at the time was more influential than anything
happening in Paris. George Caleb Bingham, Worthington Whittredge, Richard Caton Woodville,
William S. Haseltine, James M. Hart, and William Morris Hunt all passed through Düsseldorf as well
as the painter of luminescent western landscapes, Albert Bierstadt.

While the academy offered considerable technical training, Johnson felt restricted by the pedagogy
and in 1852 packed up his paints and brushes and toured Italy and France, finally ending up in The
Hague in Holland. His goal there was to study seventeenth-century Dutch artists, specifically
Rembrandt and that artist’s brilliant use of light and composition. His work was so well received that
he was offered the post of court painter, which he refused. Johnson had come to a decision that realist
art was not tied to populist allegories, drenching sentimentality or forced re-enactments of historical
events. Painting could tell both simple and complex stories without bogus emotion or flights of
fancy. Direct observation in the field, activities sketched from life, all these acquisitions could render
the American lifestyle in the American landscape. Armed with Rembrandt’s methods of visualisation,
the rigorous curricula of German technique and his own sensitivity to story telling, Eastman Johnson
spent two months in academician Thomas Couture’s Paris studio, and in 1855 he departed for the
United States. The American art scene that greeted his arrival was considerably different from when
he had left just seven years previously. Daguerreotype salons had sprouted like mushrooms on a log –
especially in Washington. The fashionable one-of-a-kind photographic portraits in their velvet and
gutta-percha clamshell frames became the rage as carte de visite leave-behinds and commemorative
gifts. Sadly, the faces that peered back were mostly severe in expression due to the often three-minute
exposures, while the head was securely kept in place by a clamp. Even so, the market for crayon
portraits had crashed. Still, his reputation and fine work kept him in portrait commissions in
Cincinnati and Washington, and finally funded his studio when he settled in New York.

Another major change was Americans’ attitudes to art and its place in their society. In the 1840s
everything European was considered the definition of good taste and enlightened sensibilities. Now,
in the 1850s, Americans began to turn inward and seek their own identities in art and letters. The
nation’s vistas were expanding and in the East and Midwest those who bought paintings wanted
scenes of the exotic Far West. People who lived in teeming cities longed for idealised views of
bucolic farm life and recreation in the forests and along country roads, images of simple lives led in
the Deep South and even among the Plains Indians.
Eastman Johnson, The Hatch Family, c. 1870-1871.
Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 186.4 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
New York, gift of Frederic H. Hatch.
Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859.
Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 114.9 cm.
Robert L. Stuart Collection,
New York Historical Society, New York, New York.
Eastman Johnson, Corn Husking, 1860.
Oil on canvas, 67.3 x 76.8 cm.
Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse,
New York, gift of Andrew D. White.
Eastman Johnson, Cranberry Pickers, c. 1879.
Oil on paper board, 57.1 x 67.9 cm. Private collection.

It was Johnson’s good luck to have his sister, Sarah, marry William Henry Newton, who took his
bride up to property investments he had made in the upper Midwest. Johnson’s brother, Reuben, had
also moved up north to Superior, Wisconsin and opened a sawmill. Having kin already established in
that distant country motivated Johnson to journey into the wilderness armed with cash from his
portrait sittings and a loan from his father to invest in land. The summers of 1856 and 1857 were
spent working with brush and crayon around western Lake Superior and in a cabin he built on
Pokegema Bay.

He enlisted the services of a guide, Stephen Boonga, a mixed-blood African-American and Ojibwe
Native-American man, to help him build a canoe and paddle to the Apostle Islands and the cities of
Duluth and Superior. In Grand Portage, Johnson made contact with the Ojibwe tribes and made a
number of sketches in charcoal and oil.[1]

In 1859, Johnson reached back into his Düsseldorf training and created his first American genre
painting titled Life in the South (aka: The Deep South, Negro Life at the South & Old Kentucky
Home). On close examination, he did not reach too far. The painting is largely a collection of portrait
sittings grouped in story-suggesting clusters about a charmingly dilapidated barn and slave residence.
Taken as a whole, it is quite sappy, but the portrayals of the courting couple, the slave children and
their extended family members – even the white mistress watching the scene from a hole in the fence
(or is she watching the courtship of the mulatto couple?) – have a homey sincerity. Whatever the
level of sugar coating, the painting managed to please both the Southerners, who saw it as an idyllic
representation, and the anti-slavery North, who read into it all the evils of that “peculiar institution”.
If it was packed with sentiment, it was American sentiment and was good enough to get him elected
to the National Design Academy of New York.
Johnson took his sketch pad with him to the Civil War, following the Union Army not unlike a
modern photojournalist. The most famous outcome of this five-year sojourn was his oil painting, The
Wounded Drummer Boy.

During the next twenty years, Eastman Johnson became a Regionalist Realist painter, keeping himself
to the East Coast and creating his most memorable works. He settled into a routine of venturing back
to boyhood haunts in Fryeburg, Maine and made regular summer visits to Nantucket. He married
Elizabeth Buckley in 1869 and fathered a daughter, Ethel Eastman Johnson in 1870. Many of his
most charming works are of his wife and child in and around their home.

Johnson recognised something in the East that gave him comfort and there is an undercurrent of
contentment in all his genre paintings of this period of his work. When not traipsing off after the
Army of the Potomac throughout the 1860s, he travelled to New England. After seeing up close the
destruction of war, the comfortable semi-antiquity of his homeland must have come as a relief. Since
so many young men were in uniform during the war years and many didn’t come back from the battles
he was left with the elderly and women and young people who were not of conscription age as his
subjects. Where no people were present in his pictures, the tools they used and the interiors that
sheltered them showed use and degrees of decay. They lacked a swab of whitewash or a few stones in
the wall or the hearth blackened dark with soot, or a cane chair seat needing a fresh weave.

One of his most successful genre paintings was Corn Husking, exhibited in 1861 at the National
Academy of Design in New York. The show opened just three weeks before the bombardment of Fort
Sumter and the start of the Civil War. No less than the 200,000 New Yorkers crowded into Union
Square to support the Union cause, and Johnson had made his own pro-Union statement in this
painting. Written on the barn door are the words “Lincoln and Hamlin” referring to Lincoln’s
successful run for the presidency and his running mate from Maine, Hannibal Hamlin. New England
had come out in strength for the Republican ticket during the election so the painting was as much a
subtle political broadside as it was an example of fine art.

He never felt the need to fall back upon the historical ‘Down Easters’, the Puritans in knee britches or
the old coaches that plied the roads. Except for his Old Stage Coach painting he sketched in pieces
and then assembled in his studio. It depicts the ruin of stage coachwork without wheels or axles being
reclaimed by the local vegetation and workings of the elements. But even this lamentable reminder of
days past is rejuvenated by the shouts and whoops of children as they play around and upon the
disintegrating shell. Boys whinny and gallop in place while drivers snap whips made of air and
imagination and the girls peer out of the windows at the passing scene. All this action by the side of
the road takes place under late afternoon sun and is so unforced and natural that it is impossible to
imagine this captured moment was created in a studio from bits and pieces and assembled in
Johnson’s mind.

All this rural hoopla fitted in with the trend that had citizens returning to their roots during and after
the Civil War, paying homage to the old, uncomplicated days so prominent in imprecise memory.
Books, plays, artwork all celebrated the ‘good old days’ unencumbered by the industrial revolution,
crowded cities, smoke-belching steam locomotives, and the stink of a hundred backyard privies on a
hot summer night. Coal gas hissing into the lamps in overstuffed apartments. The reek of crowds
layered in Victorian fashion moving in clouds of scent to mask the odour of their unwashed bodies.
The paintings promised open vistas, big spaces, dense forests and winding brooks, the warm dry smell
of hay in a feed barn and the splashing rumble of a mill wheel in the river race.

Making use of his years studying Rembrandt’s use of light in etchings and oil paintings, Johnson
infused his works with sophisticated views, particularly with the interiors. He evoked mood and the
rough-hewn lives of Americans of all walks of life. He bestowed grace and charm on the most
mundane subjects.

Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West travelling show to cities and towns after touring the capitals ofEurope and performing before the Imperial Royals. But his enactments of cowboy and Indian mock
battles and the skills of his bronco busters, sharpshooters and ropers lost relevance as the real West
began to disappear. The land was still there, but railways, the telegraph and hordes of settlers
transformed the face of it. What had been news stories of Custer’s Last Stand, the Battle of Wounded
Knee, land and gold rushes became nostalgia and slipped from newspaper headlines to memories
swapped on shady porches in the cool of the evening.

Genre paintings slipped from favour. Johnson fell back upon his portraits for income but, like the old
men seated around the stove in the general store, he reached back into his own memories. He had, for
instance, a great desire to produce a large canvas depicting the process of maple sugar boiling. Over
the years he made a number of studies of this unique ‘Down East’ scene, but never completed the
finished canvas as interest in nostalgia waned. His fame as a portrait artist never vanished and he was
in constant demand. Even into his seventies, he remained active, documenting both his era and the
images in his memory.

Of the series, Henry T. Tuckerman, Boston essayist and critic, explained Johnson’s ability to capture
“Maine, of old… rare materials… becoming more rare and less picturesque as locomotive facilities
reduce costume, dress, speech and even faces to a monotonous uniformity.”[2]

By 1880, Johnson focused more and more on his portrait work. Around him, the nation was changing
rapidly as industry, transportation and communications evolved, making the crusty, dusty antiquity of
Maine memories even less relevant. There were few artists still around who had begun their careers
before the Civil War, and of that diminishing group, he remained in public favour. Right up until his
death at the age of eighty-two on 5 April 1906, he was considered a popular pioneer for realism that
reflected the American scene using Old World techniques, but filtered through the flint-sharp
sensibilities of a true Yankee ‘Down Easter’.
Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves, c. 1862.
Oil on paper board, 55.8 x 66.4 cm. The Brooklyn Museum,
Brooklyn, New York, gift of Miss Gwendolyn O.L. Conkling.
Winslow Homer, Prisoners from the Front, 1866.
Oil on canvas, 61 x 96.5 cm. The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York, New York, gift of Mrs. Frank B. Porter.


Almost a generation behind Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, also a largely self-taught artist,
carried forward Johnson’s gift of portraying the American scene and added a love of the sea to the
rustic genre images. He was born on 24 February 1836 in Boston, Massachusetts to Henrietta Benson
and Charles Savage Homer. Henrietta grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she learned the art
of watercolour. She was an active amateur painter and went on to exhibit with her son at the Boston
Art Association in the 1870s.[3] His mother became Winslow’s first teacher.

An even greater influence on his early art training was the legendary Boston romantic painter,
Washington Allston (1779-1843). Though he made two trips to Europe, studying various salon
painters including the British artist, Benjamin West, Allston became a leading figure in the early
nineteenth-century Romantic Movement in America. His emphasis was on landscape, but he
concentrated more on mood and emotion than observation of an actual scene. His skills also extended
to writing and he produced poetry, novels and treatises on art. Of these, his philosophy ordained that
“primary subjects” seen in the painting were supported by underlying “secondary subjects” that
enforced the mood and had religious undertones inspired by the revelations of God.

Though Allston died when Homer was just seven years old, the presence of the Great Man was
everywhere in the Boston-Cambridge neighbourhoods where he had painted and written. Poetic
tributes, exhibitions of his works and publications of his lectures, edited by Richard Henry Dana Jr. –
author of Two Years Before the Mast – created a virtual Allston cult. Homer was surrounded by
Allston’s acolytes and could not have avoided the artist’s work and philosophies. Homer’s
contemporaries and close associates who knew of Allston’s impact claimed they recognised the
‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ subjects in Homer’s paintings and understood the ‘secret’ to the success of
the works. To appreciate Allston’s romantic sensibilities, one of his poems follows.
A r t
O Art, high gift of Heaven! How oft defamed
When seeming praised! To most a craft that fits,
By dead, prescriptive Rule, the scattered bits
Of gathered knowledge; even so misnamed
By some who would invoke thee; but not so
By him,—the noble Tuscan—who gave birth
To forms unseen of man, unknown to Earth,
Now living habitants; he felt the glow
Of thy revealing touch, that brought to view
The invisible Idea; and he knew,
E’en by his inward sense, its form was true:
‘T was life to life responding,—highest truth!
So, through Elisha’s faith, the Hebrew Youth
Beheld the thin blue air to fiery chariots grow.

Washington Allston, Lectures & Poems, 1850.

At the age of nineteen in 1855, Homer was apprenticed to the Boston lithography shop of John Henry
Bufford who had studied under New York’s George Endicott and Nathaniel Currier (soon to be
partnered with James Merritt Ives) to find practical applications for his art.

He remained at Bufford’s for two years and then embarked as a freelance illustrator finding sketch
work at Ballou’s Pictorial and Harpers Weekly. He opened a studio at the Tenth Street Studio
Building in New York City. Located at 51 West Tenth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the
Studio Building was a virtual rabbit warren of artist studios that radiated out from a central domed
gallery. Artists from all over the country came to the location and took rooms nearby, giving
Greenwich Village its new and future reputation as a Bohemian arts centre.
Winslow Homer, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), c. 1873-1876.
Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 97 cm. National Gallery of Art,
Washington, D.C., gift of the W. L. and May T. Mellon Foundation.

At Harpers, where he remained a frequent contributor for years, his sketches made in the field were
carved into wood blocks for multiple printing. He also copied images imported from England so they
could be used to illustrate stories. And then the largest story he would ever cover burst as artillery
shells slammed into Fort Sumter and the American Civil War flashed to life.

Homer was attending classes at the National Academy of Design, studying under Frédéric Rondel, a
landscape artist who had just joined the teaching staff. Harpers Weekly armed Homer with sketch
pads and sent him off to join the Union Army of the Potomac in 1861. He remained, following the
troops and botched campaigns of Major General George B. McClellan. He drew their camps on picket
duty, playing cards between battles, and worked alongside photographers whose bulky glass plate
cameras could not produce pictures of any troops in action. Their photographic prints had to be
turned into steel engravings in order to be printed in newspapers or by Harpers. Most of his sketches
differed greatly from the heroic work of Eastman Johnson who produced The Wounded Drummer
Boy. Homer seemed more drawn to the homey non-action moments that happened between battles, as
with Home Sweet Home showing two Union soldiers boiling water over a fire in an encampment.
These intimate scenes became popular with Harpers’ readers, showing how their boys lived when
they weren’t fighting or marching. Because of the war’s huge casualty totals, these images of men
bonding on the battlefield were comforting.

While many of his drawings copied the stiff compositions of the photographers, he managed to
capture some unique, journalistic images such as Sharpshooter on Picket Duty. This drawing shows
a Union sniper aiming a rifled musket using a long telescopic gun sight. The new technology allowed
marksmen to use these sights to make long range shots and kill enemy officers, harass artillery units
and sink the morale of enemy troops. The name ‘sharpshooter’ referred to a specific Sharps
breechloading rifle that, when combined with the telescopic sight, became a deadly and feared weapon. Any
snipers captured by opposing troops were usually shot as being godless, cold-blooded murderers. This
drawing and another one, Prisoners from the Front, were turned into paintings in Homer’s studio
after the war, resulting in his being elected a full academician.
Winslow Homer, The Signal of Distress, 1890.
Oil on canvas, 62 x 98 cm.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

In 1867, he travelled to Paris where Prisoners from the Front was hung in the American section of
the Paris World Exposition called the ‘Universal Exhibition’. As with the British Great Exposition of
1851, art was considered a secondary attraction when compared to steam engines, railway trains and
mass-produced manufactured products and processes, plus exotic goods and cultures from distant
lands. The Americans shipped over a tribe of Indians and their tepees that became a hit for the show.
Excluded from the show were the ‘young naturalists’, Cézanne, Degas, Monet and Renoir, who set up
their own exhibitions outside the Exposition. The hall devoted to art was small, requiring paintings be
hung in rows up to the ceiling. Still, Homer managed to see a broad cross-section of European art
from Impressionists to hoary academicians grinding out neo-classical allegories. The London Times
“In the exhibition palace, one wanted in particular, apart from landscape painting by
Rousseau or Français, to see exotic art or images of history in the academic,
neoclassicist style. In the event, the walls were mainly covered with works of the panel
members, who included: Gérôme, Dupré, Bouguereau, Millet, Daubigny, Huet and Corot,
who, other than was the case with Courbet, were each represented with between eight and
fourteen paintings. Genre pictures were particularly popular and represented. Although
only works were supposed to be exhibited which had been completed after 1 January
1855, the exhibition proved in the final analysis to be a retrospective of recognised
artists. Art was, in its undecorated, crowded and uncomfortable presentation, one
product among many, only an “agreeable accessoire”, as Charles Blanc, who was
himself a panel member, expressed it in 1867 in the Le Temps newspaper[4]

According to the New York Times previewing the show, “The best American works from the best
private galleries and studios have been cheerfully placed at their (the U.S. Government) disposition. A
collection of the highest character will in consequence be exhibited, instead of the crudities of
unknown hands.”[5] While Homer’s painting, Prisoners from the Front bears a striking resemblance
to Courbet’s Bonjour Monsieur Courbet with a foreground group against the angled horizon and
activity behind them, the Parisians admired it for its closeness in style to the sugary allegorical
academician Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Homer stayed on in Paris for a year with his Boston chum, Albert Kelsey, sharing a flat. They were
very close friends and had a photo taken that mocked the convention of wedding photography of the
time with Kelsey standing behind the seated Homer with his hand on Homer’s shoulder. On the back
of the photo, Kelsey wrote, Damion and Pythias, after the Greek lovers. This relationship and a
subsequent sketch of Kelsey sitting naked on the back of a giant turtle combined with Homer’s
maledominated lifestyle suggests either an asexual or homosexual bent to his social life. Many of his
contemporaries offered that he was “painfully shy” around women, which was not unusual
considering his strong Congregationalist church upbringing, with his dominant mother providing his
art training.

On the other hand, Homer was considered a man’s man by his male friends, hanging out, drinking and
smoking in cafes until the wee hours, even professing to enjoy love affairs. He demonstrated his love
of nature and the men who sailed the sea, hunted and farmed the land, his bonding with the soldiers he
sketched during the war. And yet as he matured, he sought his own space and little or nothing to do
with women except as candid subjects for his sketches and paintings. When he did show women they
were strong, independent and happy with their own company as in Promenade on the Beach featuring
two women arm and arm at sunset. He also demonstrated how harm can come to women in works
such as To the Rescue; a brooding barren, colourless landscape that appears to show two women
being pursued by a man with a rope noose. All the Gay and Golden Weather is an engraving
produced in 1869 that shows distance and eroded communications between couples. Apparently
Homer had little faith in the institution of marriage.