Truth or Fiction? Homer as Witness

August 13, 2019
A watercolor of a man standing in the ocean, his back the viewer, holding up a piece of coral towards a person in a nearby boat.
Winslow Homer, Sea Garden, Bahamas, 1885. Watercolor. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.303.

American artist Winslow Homer’s (1836–1910) career was launched not in formal studios but in newsrooms, where he produced illustrations for periodicals. Starting in 1861, Homer served as a Civil War artist-correspondent, on assignment for Harper’s Weekly. Though Homer only made a few trips to the front (and went on to become more widely recognized as a painter and watercolorist), the period was undeniably formative.

Winslow Homer: Eyewitness explores this critical yet understudied point in Homer's career. The exhibition is co-curated by Ethan Lasser, the Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Curator of American Art and head of the Division of European and American Art, and Makeda Best, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, with assistance from Oliver Wunsch, former Maher Curatorial Fellow of American Art. Through drawings, prints, photographs, oil paintings, and watercolors, pulled almost entirely from the museums’ permanent collections, Eyewitness examines pictorial strategies that Homer and other artists employed during and after the Civil War to convince viewers that their work was grounded in reality. It also makes striking connections between works from the beginning and end of Homer’s career and across media. 

“We’ve used our collections to lead us in new directions,” Lasser said. With a strong representation of Homer’s Civil War illustrations and his later watercolors (such as Sea Garden, Bahamas, above), but fewer works from the middle of Homer’s career, “it felt like we had Chapter 1 and Chapter 6 at our disposal, but nothing in between,” Lasser said. The non-encyclopedic collection could have been frustrating to work with. Instead, it “opened up new scholarly questions, new ways to approach Homer.”

An Artist-Correspondent

From the Civil War battlefields, Homer produced some 50 illustrations for New York-based Harper’s Weekly, including scenes of soldiers fighting, prowling the front lines, and relaxing at camp. The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, depicting a Union marksman aiming a rifle at an unseen target, was one of his most iconic images.

An engraving of a soldier sitting in a high tree branch, pointing his gun while his canteen hangs from a smaller branch.
2018.238 Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac—A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, 1862. Wood engraving and letterpress on off-white wove paper. Fogg Museum, Anonymous Fund for the Acquisition of Prints Older than 150 Years, 2018.238.

Not only was the period critical to Homer’s development as a visual storyteller, it was also an important moment in American journalism. New technologies allowed the reproduction of newsworthy images on a broader scale than ever before. Editors, engravers, and artists like Homer needed to convince skeptical audiences that their images were trustworthy, “drawn on the spot” by eyewitnesses. (Like today, accusations of fake news⁠—though not termed as such⁠—were common.)

”No one knew how to represent the aesthetic of the eyewitness,” said Best. In developing that aesthetic, Civil War–era photographers documented and disseminated searing images. Examples in Eyewitness include albumen silver prints and carte-de-visites of Elmer Ellsworth, the Union’s first casualty; a formerly enslaved man called Gordon, whose horrifically scarred back galvanized opposition to slavery; and the squalid Confederate Andersonville prison camp.

  • A photograph of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth standing in his Union Army uniform
    of 2010.75 Mathew B. Brady & Studio, Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth (1837–1861), 1861. Albumen silver print. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library, Bequest of Evert Jansen Wendell, 2010.75.
  • A photograph of a slave, his back exposed to the camera, showing welts and scars from being whipped.
    of 2010.81 Chandler Seaver, Jr. and McPherson & Oliver, “The Peculiar Institution” Illustrated [Gordon under medical inspection], April 2, 1863, printed later. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library, Bequest of Evert Jansen Wendell, 2010.81.

Like other artists depicting the war, Homer grappled with ethical issues raised by what he witnessed, Lasser said. “He was faced with the question, ‘Do I show the brutality of what I’m seeing, or do I soften it for viewers at home?’ We’re still wrestling with these sorts of questions today.”

Convincing Techniques

After Homer’s time on the front ended, he continued to address the conflict⁠—this time with oil on canvas. Pitching Quoits (1865), depicting Union soldiers playing a ring toss game at camp, was his most ambitious work to date. To create it, Homer relied on techniques he’d developed while working for Harper’s, incorporating highly specific details such as soldiers’ faces and uniforms to convince viewers of the work’s verisimilitude.

A painting showing a group of soldiers during a leisurely time playing a game of quoits, their baggy pants and filigreed jackets identify them as members of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry.
1940.298 Winslow Homer, Pitching Quoits, 1865. Oil on canvas. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frederic Haines Curtiss, 1940.298.

Two other paintings from around this time⁠—Prisoners from the Front (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicting a confrontation in the aftermath of battle) and The Brush Harrow (an agricultural scene indirectly acknowledging the war)⁠—are also rich in signals of truthfulness, such as uniform insignia in the former and a carefully rendered landscape in the latter.

The final group of images in Eyewitness skips to the end of Homer’s career and his experimentation with watercolor. Differences in technique and subject notwithstanding, the watercolors display similarities with earlier works. For example, both The Lookout, painted in 1882, and The Approach of the British Pirate “Alabama,” painted earlier in 1863, feature figures with their backs to the viewer, gazing through telescopes.

Watercolor of a man sitting at the edge of a cliff, pointing his gun below as a woman stands behind him and watches.
1939.231

Winslow Homer, The Lookout, 1882. Watercolor over graphite on heavy white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous gift, 1939.231.
An engraving of a group of people aboard a ship, the crew looks at the approaching ship "Alabama" with a group of women anxiously surrounding him.
M9315

After Winslow Homer, engraved by unidentified artist, The Approach of the British Pirate Alabama, 1863. Wood engraving and letterpress. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of W.G. Russell Allen, M9315.

That’s not a coincidence, said Wunsch. “Homer did not simply look carefully at the world, he also looked at the act of looking itself." In fact, Homer was “more than an eyewitness; he was a reflective witness, who thought a great deal about what it meant to look," said Wunsch.

This uncommon perspective on Homer⁠—the result of curators’ concerted efforts to interrogate and connect early and later chapters of Homer’s career⁠—brings new vibrancy to the artist’s oeuvre and biography. And at a moment in which truthfulness in artistic representation continues to be questioned and challenged, Eyewitness may even help us better understand our own time.