172 – Incisive

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter On Picket Duty, 1862. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Today I want to look at an engraving as a way of introducing the work of a great painter: Winslow Homer. This is, of course, by way of an introduction my talk this Monday, 3 October, which is in itself an introduction to the exhibition at the National Gallery, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature. There follows a series of talks related to exhibitions which are mainly in London, and which are dedicated to The Lindisfarne Gospels (in Newcastle, 10 October), Lucian Freud (National Gallery, 17 October), Cezanne (Tate Modern, 24 October) and Edouard Manet and Eva Gonzalès (National Gallery again, 31 October). The blue links will take you to the relevant Tixoom page for information and booking, and they are also all listed in the diary.

Winslow Homer has been a revelation to me, as there is not a single painting by him in a British public collection. I haven’t been to the United States for well over a decade, but in the days when I went regularly I tended to focus on the Italian Renaissance, or on American works from the second half of the 20th Century. Having discovered his paintings, I now want to know more about Winslow Homer’s prints, even though, as far as I can see, he doesn’t seem to be classed as a printmaker as such, for reasons which may become clear. In 1855, at the age of 19, he became an apprentice at John H Bufford and Co., a lithographic printing shop in Boston. Two years later, his apprenticeship complete, he entered the profession which he was to follow for the next two decades at least: an illustrator for popular magazines and periodicals. However, the majority of his work was not in lithography but wood engraving. The technique is different from engraving on a metal plate. For the latter the design is gouged out of the plate using a tool called a buren, and when the plate is inked the ink fills the resulting grooves. This is what is known as intaglio printing (tagliare is Italian for ‘to cut’), which is different to Japanese wood blocks or linocuts (see, for example, Sybil Andrews’ Via Dolorosa in 161 – Negative Spaces), which are relief prints. In a relief print the lines are the result of ink sitting on the ridges between the carved out gaps. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing, so everything white has been cut out of the block, and everything black is printed from thin ridges which sit proudly at the top, on the original surface.

We see a man in uniform – a soldier – sitting in a tree, with his rifle trained on a target to our right. His position is precarious, perched on a diagonal branch growing from the trunk of a conifer growing on the right of the image. His left foot is in the crook of the branch, where it joins the trunk, and his left leg is slightly bent, leaving a gap between the branch and his knee. His right leg is more bent, and the foot hangs freely, offering neither support nor security. He grasps a small branch with his fully stretched left arm, which forms the only real horizontal in the image, affording him, and the composition, some degree of stability. The rifle rests on the same branch, next to his hand, tilted at a slight angle downwards, implying that the soldier is aiming at something on the ground at a considerable distance – although we cannot be sure how high in the tree he is. The marksman leans forward with his torso at roughly 45˚to the vertical, showing how intent and focussed he is on his activity, while the precarious position, and the fact that he is surrounded by foliage and branches – which stretch downwards almost more than up – creates a real sense of tension, which is only enhanced by the view of the sky we see through the branches and needles of the conifer in which he is sitting, some way above our heads.

A water bottle hangs from an offshoot of the branch the soldier is holding, knotted around it to keep it secure. The attention to detail is supreme, from the precise definition of the sole of the shoe, to the exact arrangement of the laces, threaded through holes and tied, defined by spaced, diagonal lines, suggesting that the laces are formed from strands of thread which are twisted together. The ends of the trousers are tucked into socks, or puttees, both garments depicted using regular parallel lines. The branches are created with shorter, curved lines, dashes and dots, which convey the rough, varied flakiness of the bark. Clouds in the sky are blank paper, with the clear blue, slightly darker than the clouds, is indicated by thin, horizontal lines. There is some sort of bird hovering high up, visible to the left of the soldier’s right foot, its distant presence adding a somewhat vertiginous feel to the danger inherent in the situation.

The sky under the left arm is one of the brightest parts of the print. It helps to emphasize the stability of this gesture, and to enhance the drive of the focus from left to right, towards the unseen target. The right hand, holding the rifle, and about to pull the trigger, is almost equally bright, only a few lines having been left on the surface of the wood to create the shape of the fingers and define the tendons on the back of the hand. Against the darker carving of the rifle, and emerging from the mid-tones of the sleeve, this hand and its imminent action become the main focus of the image. Near to this is the white of an eye, flashing from the dark socket, in shadow thanks to the soldier’s cap. We are looking at a sharp-eyed sharpshooter intent on his enemy. On top of his cap the letter ‘A’ tells us the company with which he served. The intricacy of detail and subtle variety in tone and texture which Homer has been able to achieve, creating the appearances of different materials, and defining the forms and positions in space simply by varying the length, density, and direction of the lines, show him to be a printmaker of the highest order. However, unlike, say, Dürer or Rembrandt, he is not necessarily celebrated as such. But why not? Well, the pictures I have shown you so far are from a print which has been cut out of its original context – so let’s put that back. This is another example of the image, also in the collection of the Met in New York.

The print was published as a page-sized illustration. Indeed, the detail below shows us that it was page 724 of Harper’s Weekly, published on November 15, 1862 (that was volume VII, in case you wanted to know).

Homer had worked for Harper’s more-or-less since its inception in 1857, and four years later, in October 1861, the periodical sent him to Washington D.C., where he was to become an artist-correspondent during the American Civil War. He joined the Union Army, representing the Northern States which were fighting to maintain the Union (as the name suggests), against the Southern Confederates, who had seceded. By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, the New York Tribune called Homer ‘the best chronicler of the war’, and this image, The Army of the Potomac – A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, became one of his most celebrated works from that period.

The wood block was not necessarily carved by Homer himself . The hard-wood block was both polished and whitened, and Homer would draw his designs directly onto this pristine surface in pencil. Highly skilled craftsmen would then cut away all of the remaining white surfaces – effectively removing what would be left white in the print. This is equivalent to the way in which Dürer created his relief wood-block prints, such as the Small Passion series, although Dürer drew his designs onto paper, which was then attached to the block and cut through. As a result, although some of the blocks survive, Dürer’s original drawings do not. I suspect that Homer’s skills as a printmaker are accorded a lower status because he worked as an illustrator: it was only when he turned to painting that he would be called an artist. As it happens, it was with this very image that he made this step. Have a look at the caption of the image as it was originally published.

After the title, there is a parenthetical statement, ‘[FROM A PAINTING BY W. HOMER, ESQ.]’. In this detail, we can also see his signature, inscribed among the whorls of the bark, at the bottom right corner. At this point Homer was already known as an illustrator, but now his status as a painter has been revealed – even advertised – to an already eager public. The painting itself, quite possibly the earliest he completed, and certainly the first significant oil of his career, is the first on view in the National Gallery’s current exhibition.

Winslow Homer, Sharpshooter, 1863. Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

Its title is slightly different, reduced, simply, to Sharpshooter. However, the composition is fundamentally the same. The foliage is denser in the painting, so there is less open sky, but this is probably because the clarity needed for a monochrome print becomes less important when colour can be used to distinguish forms as well. However, details are omitted. There is no bird (too fiddly?), nor is there a water bottle hanging from the tree. The company letter ‘A’ has been replaced by a red lozenge. However, there is something about this painting which, at first glance, could appear oddly inconsistent with the evidence so far provided. It is dated 1863, and yet the wood engraving was published in 1862, claiming to be ‘from a painting by W. Homer’. However, this is by no means impossible, and his first painting could also be the first example of the artist changing his mind. In the following decades Homer would regularly complete a painting and exhibit it, only to rework it later, often to simplify, and so clarify, the image. He may well have decided that the water bottle didn’t read well enough in the painting, and although it was ideal for an engraving, the company letter could well have proved too intricate in paint: presumably he replaced it for reasons of clarity. Have a look at these two Union Army hats which I found on Pinterest. The first is a ‘Union Model 1858 Forage cap, circa 1861, with company letter “C”’, while the second is described as a ‘Civil War Bummers Cap’ (another name for a Forage Cap), with the ‘Original insignia of the 3rd Corps 1st Division, 3rd brigade, Army of the Potomac’. The brigade number here is not unlike the company letter in the print.

According to one war insignia website I have just found, from which you can buy a reproduction red badge of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac, for a mere $4.95, the lozenge was adopted on 21 March, 1863 – so in time for the painting, but not the wood engraving. I imagine that it was adopted for the same reason that Homer included it in the painting: it is far easier to see from a distance than it would be to read a brass letter. This is one of the reasons that I love the History of Art. Some people mistakenly think it is about looking at pretty pictures, but in reality it can cover every human discipline, from religion to war (and let’s face it, often there hasn’t been much difference between these two). Whatever the subject, I always end up learning so much about the world by learning about the art it produces… In later years Homer showed that he was all too aware of the inhumanity of the action in this particular painting. We are looking intently at a single man, himself intent on seeking out and killing a single opponent. In 1896 Homer wrote to his friend George Briggs, saying, ‘I looked through one of their rifles once when they were in a peach orchard in front of Yorktown in April, 1862’. He included a sketch of this, and went on to write, ‘The above impression struck me as being as near to murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service’. The print I have been looking at today illustrated a report on the sharpshooters of the Army of the Potomac, which explained that, from 600 feet, the men were expected to be able to hit a target no more than 5 inches from the bullseye with ten consecutive shots. You can find some more information in a short article about the painting which was published in the Washington Post last year.

Conflict was to be a constant theme in Homer’s work, but although the Civil War was to be important for his development, and brought his name to a broad public, it did not remain a subject to be revisited for long. However, the repercussions of it did, particularly in regard to the Abolition of Slavery, which the victory of the Union Army helped to bring about. One of the things I will be exploring on Monday is the ways in which these repercussions played out, but I will also be looking at other manifestations of conflict which were essential to his work, especially in regard to the natural environment – just one of his concerns which make the paintings entirely relevant to us today, more than a century after his death.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

2 thoughts on “172 – Incisive

  1. I have been to an exhibition of some of his watercolours. So long ago I can’t remember if in US or here.


    1. I’d love to see more! And indeed, there have been exhibitions of his prints, so maybe they are not as marginalised as I thought – althought there are none in the National Gallery’s current exhibition.


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