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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915—Winslow Homer's Civil War

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010
Distinguished Civil War scholar James McPherson comments on Pitching Quoits and The Veteran in a New Field, two of the Winslow Homer paintings in the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.


Barbara Weinberg: Hello. I'm Barbara Weinberg, curator—with my colleague Carrie Rebora Barratt—of the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The exhibition includes more than a hundred iconic paintings by many of America's most acclaimed artists, who tell stories about their own times by depicting ordinary people engaged in life's tasks and pleasures. The paintings range in date from the era of the Revolution to the eve of World War I.

The painter who made the most compelling chronicle of the Civil War and the period of reconciliation that followed it is Winslow Homer. We invited James McPherson—professor emeritus of American History at Princeton University and distinguished Civil War scholar—to comment on two of Homer's great paintings: Pitching Quoits of 1865, on loan to the exhibition from the Harvard University Art Museums, and The Veteran in a New Field, also of 1865, from the Met's own collection.

Pitching Quoits is Homer's most ambitious Civil War scene. While photographers documented the war's carnage and other painters depicted its battles, Homer primarily chronicled life in camp. In this painting, we see Union soldiers who chose to outfit themselves in the picturesque red uniforms associated with the Zouaves, North African tribesmen who had fought with the French in North Africa. These Union troops are trying to relieve the boredom of time spent between battles by playing a popular nineteenth-century game.

James McPherson: I think about my youth when I used to play horseshoes a lot, mainly with my father-in-law and his friends. I never became super-proficient at it but I became good enough so that occasionally I could beat them.

And, of course, the game of quoits is similar to horseshoes. And, in fact, in Homer's painting, they are actually throwing horseshoes, not actual quoits, which is a complete circle. So pitching a horseshoe is actually a little bit easier than pitching quoits to score, because you have an open end on the horseshoe and it might slide around the post, whereas with quoits you have to loop it directly over the post itself.

Several of the Union regiments—and indeed, at the beginning of the war, some of the Confederate regiments—imitated the French Colonial troops called Zouaves, who operated in North Africa, in Algeria, in the middle part of the nineteenth century. And their red uniforms and fez caps and knee britches all became the rage at the time; it was kind of a fad. And several of these volunteer and militia regiments in 1861 outfitted themselves in the Zouave colorful garb. Some of them retained—at least, for dress uniforms throughout the war, but most of them discarded this uniform, at least for combat, because, of course, the bright red uniforms made a wonderful target for the enemy.

And I do remember that the Fifth New York—which had the Zouave uniforms and fought at Second Bull Run—was almost wiped out by Confederate attack. And part of the reason for that was the high visibility of their red uniforms. And, as a consequence, some of these Zouave regiments stopped wearing the Zouave outfit, although some of them actually did continue through the end of the war. It's the exact opposite of the idea of a camouflage uniform. But even the ones that had abandoned it for combat sometimes continued to wear it as a dress uniform. And Homer was much attracted to painting these Zouave-uniformed troops, because of the color and the composition of the uniforms. It was a painter's delight.

A lot of the time, the soldiers' experience in camp was one of boredom. They, of course, had to police the camp. They had to drill. They spent a lot of time reading and writing letters, reading newspapers that were available in camp, playing cards. But they also played games to pass the time and enjoy themselves. And quoits, or horseshoes, was one of those games. Baseball was another one. And, in fact, the Civil War armies gave baseball a great boost. Baseball had been played in the years before the war but the popularity would spread quickly as a consequence of soldiers playing it in camp. And I suspect that the popularity of the game of horseshoes also spread quickly after the war as a consequence of the soldiers' wartime experience playing these games.

Homer is one of my favorite American artists and I have two or three books of his Civil War paintings and a biography of Homer. And he did like the Zouave uniform, because a lot of his paintings of soldiers in camp do portray these colorful uniforms. He went to the front several times during the war for months at a time as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly, which was the most widely circulated illustrated weekly newspaper in the North. And Homer drew hundreds of woodcut drawings for Harper's Weekly. Some of them later became the basis of his paintings, but most of his Civil War paintings were not actually exhibited until the very end of the war or after the war.

I think that battlefields drawn by artists during the Civil War tended to be fairly stereotyped and that was even true of Homer's woodcut drawings for Harper's Weekly. Mostly the artists did not actually witness battles. They were not in the army itself; they were behind the lines. Soldiers relaxing around the camp, around the campfire, playing games like pitching quoits or horseshoes—that was something that they witnessed personally and they could take their time painting it and make it realistic in a way that they could not do for battle drawings or paintings.

There's a saying that the past is a foreign country, and I think that's probably true for a lot of people. But to see these human-interest paintings of people just like ourselves, caught up in a much different situation from our everyday situation today, I think may be an eye-opener for a lot of people. And maybe it will start them thinking about the way in which our present today is connected in many ways with these traumatic events in American history a century and a half ago.

Barbara Weinberg: Homer's painting The Veteran in a New Field, which was painted in the summer and fall of 1865 after the end of the war, shows an emblematic farmer who is a Union veteran. This is signified by his discarded uniform jacket and canteen at the lower right. James McPherson explores the dual symbolism of death and life, sacrifice and redemption, in this work, which Homer created at a pivotal moment in American history.

James McPherson: Well, April of 1865 witnessed the end of the Civil War, with the surrender of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox and then the surrender of the second largest Confederate army, the Army of Tennessee, at Durham Station in North Carolina. So it was clear that the war had come to an end. The national tragedy of the war had come to an end. But then, of course, it was compounded by yet another national tragedy in the middle of April, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

What this painting portrays, I think, is both a situation reflecting a reality and also a powerful symbol. The reality is that the Civil War was fought mostly by volunteer citizen soldiers. The young men who enlisted voluntarily back in 1861 and 1862 went from the farm or from the forge to their training camps, but continued to think of themselves as civilians in uniform and to dream of returning home as soon as they could, which was when they could get the job done. So here is a soldier who enlisted—we can use our imagination here—but enlisted at the age of nineteen back in 1861. And now it's four years later and he's twenty-three years old, but he goes back to his father's farm, and he gets back at a time when the wheat is ripe, time to be harvested. So he's out there in the field returning to his civilian occupation, just like the famous Roman general Cincinnatus, who returns to the plough after his wartime experiences. And so Homer, I think, is using this painting to portray the return of peace and the return of normality to a country that has experienced anything but normality for the previous four years. So it's looking forward toward a future of peace and plenty and a reunited nation, and maybe, one can hope, a returned prosperity. So that's one meaning of the painting.

But I think there's a second, maybe a little bit darker, meaning, as well. When Homer originally painted that picture, the soldier was wielding what was called a cradle—not a single-bladed scythe, but a scythe with wooden framework attached to it to catch the sheaves of grain as he cut them. And you can see in that painting that Homer painted over the cradle and turned it into the single-bladed scythe. And most experts think the reason he did that was to symbolize the Grim Reaper, the death of so many hundreds of thousands of Americans in the Civil War. Here is this citizen soldier who is returning to his peaceful pursuits, but at the same time he's the symbol of the enormous death toll taken by the American Civil War. So he is both a figure of peace but also a figure of war, and I think Homer wanted to remind his viewers that this citizen soldier had one time been a killer, not in the negative sense of that word, but clearly a killer, because so many people had been killed in the war. That's the only interpretation that really makes sense to explain why Homer had turned the cradle into a scythe, which was universally considered to be the symbol of death, of the Grim Reaper.

Most of the soldiers returning home were able to return to an occupation that they had pursued before the war. About half of them came from farms and so they returned to their family farm. In some cases they were the farm owner, in some cases the son of a farm owner. And so, that was not really a problem. In other cases, they returned to their former employment. I had a great-grandfather in the war who was a printer—a young printer—when the war started and when he came back, he could take up right where he left off as a printer and eventually became a newspaper editor. In fact, most newspaper editors in the nineteenth century had actually started out as printers.

And while there was some problem of temporary unemployment for soldiers who returned home, I don't think it was terribly serious. The economy was such that they were able to find their way back into the niches where they had been before. And there was a demand for their labor. The economy was expanding in the years after the war. Many of these soldiers actually remained in the South for a while. Others of them moved west. A lot of them became employees building the Transcontinental Railroad, the Union Pacific Railroad, which had been authorized during the war and was built across the prairies and the plains in the years after the war.

Psychological adjustment may have been difficult for a lot of these soldiers. We don't know very much about that, because psychology and psychiatry were virtually nonexistent sciences at the time. But we can assume that a lot of them experienced what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. And there was a discernible rise in narcotics use after the war. A lot of soldiers had been treated with opium or laudanum or morphine for wounds and some of them became addicted to that. There were some other problems that we're familiar with from returning soldiers in other wars, but in the case of the Civil War, those problems seem not to have been as serious as they have been in more recent wars.

In a way, I think, Homer—in The Veteran in a New Field—was assuming, at least, that when a veteran returned home, he would not have a major readjustment to make; that he could go back to the farm and continue just as if the war was a distant memory.

When I was in graduate school—which was half a century ago, now—it was during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and got caught up in some of the events of the Civil Rights Movement in that at least semi-Southern city. But these were the years of the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the marches and demonstrations, and I became very much interested in the historical roots of the modern Civil Rights Movement back in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era and became very interested in the civil-rights activists of the 1860s, who were the Abolitionists and their role in civil rights and black education once slavery was abolished. So that was my entrée into the Civil War.

And as I learned more about that, I became more and more interested in the political context of these events and, beyond that, in the military context. And so, it was a kind of gradual expansion of interests over the years. Homer actually did some very good Reconstruction paintings of the freed slaves. I think he was strongly in favor of civil and political rights for the freed slaves. His portrayal of freed slaves is quite sympathetic; it's not at all stereotypical. It's not any kind of a caricature, the way some artists portrayed blacks at the time. And that's another area where I became interested in Homer, because of my interest in these questions.

Barbara Weinberg: Winslow Homer's Pitching Quoits and The Veteran in a New Field, along with many other images from the exhibition, can be viewed online at metmuseum.org in the special feature for American Stories. There—as on the Audio Guide program in the exhibition itself—you can also hear a range of perspectives by the exhibition's curators—Carrie Rebora Barratt and me, Barbara Weinberg—as well as artists, historians, and other experts from a variety of fields.

The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Audio Guide program is sponsored by Bloomberg.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 12, 2009, through January 24, 2010.

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