OFFERING A KEEN EYE AND UNIQUE VISION
by Linda Chestney
Perhaps best known for his marine scenes, be they oil or watercolor, Winslow Homer was also adept with other forms of artistic expression. The current show at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art highlights one of those other talents — wood engravings.
Embedded on the front lines and behind the scenes as a journalist covering the Civil War for Harper’s Weekly, Homer drew sketches that were subsequently translated by staff engravers. The illustrations he created precluded photography in print publications. During the Civil War period (1861-1865), photographs weren’t easily reproducible and were technologically inferior to engravings. So, with a typical print run of 200,000 copies, Harper’s chose wood engravings.
Organized by thematic groupings, this exhibition showcases Homer’s images of battle, camp life, and women’s activities during the war and life after war. The show underscores Homer’s unique vision of modern warfare and his keen eye for social observation.
Historically, art and literature often reflect cultural trends and attitudes. Homer’s 30 wood engravings in this exhibition, on loan from the permanent collection of the Portland Museum of Art, accurately capture the political and cultural climate of the time. But rather than concentrate on well-known war heroes or horrific Civil War battles, Homer humanized the conflict with illustrations that expressed the soldier’s daily life in camp and the war’s impact on the home front.
Harper’s Weekly was the most widely read journal in the United States throughout the Civil War period. So as not to upset its wide readership in the South, Harper’s initially took a moderate editorial position on the issue of slavery. Publications that supported abolition referred to it as Harper’s Weakly. But with time it came down strongly in the abolition camp and supported Lincoln and the Union.
At the outset, Homer’s coverage of the Civil War found his engravings subtly reinforcing racial stereotypes around blacks, for example, but with time his approach to representing blacks evolved, as did other issues, unveiling a greater sensitivity to the plight of humanity at large.