The Civil War and American Art. Part Three

 The Civil War and American Art

By Sarah Kate Jorgensen

Smithsonian American Art Museum  & The Metropolitan Museum of Art


In Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field, sun shimmers off the wheat as it sways in the wind. The painting is made up of three bands of color: the blue, lightly cloudy sky, the yellow gold and ochre wheat field, and the golden color of the wheat cuttings that sit on top of greenish earth.

Winslow Homer
The Veteran in a New Field, 1865
Oil on Canvas
24 1/8″ x 38 1/8″
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wheat fields symbolized the North’s prosperity. Free men harvested the crop.   A large portion of Civil War battles were fought in corn and wheat fields.

With his back to us, a farmer uses a scythe (that resembles that of the Grim Reaper) to cut wheat.  He is a veteran- a canteen bearing the artists’ initials and a union coat lie in the in the corner of the painting. As he cuts the wheat, stalks pile up behind him, making it difficult to go back. Metaphorically, Homer is referring to the fact that a soldier can never return to life as it was before the war. Curator Eleanor Harvey suggests that he is struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder, something that was not medically labeled at the time, but was nevertheless experienced.  With each swing of the scythe in the limitless field, we are lead to believe, that veterans from both North and South are haunted by images of what has occurred- soldiers being mowed down in fields.  The reaper has come to Timothy O’ Sullivan’s Harvest of Death. What is certain is that the farmer cannot retreat, but must move forward.  In a sense that is what the artist is telling the nation to do.

O sullivan
Timothy H. O’Sullivan
A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863
albumen print, 6 3/4 x 8 7/8 inches
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia.

The Civil War shaped Winslow Homer’s entire career. At the war’s onset Homer was twenty-five. He had not exhibited publicly.  As an illustrator for Harper’s he was immersed in politics and embedded with McClellan’s army as it went south.  He was at the Battle of the Wilderness.  His subjects included slavery, soldier camps, soldiers’ lives, and subsequently, reconstruction.

Winslow Homer painted Veteran in a New Field in the summer of 1865, shortly after Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination. The nation was coming to grips with the end of war and the mourning of President Lincoln.  Homer’s redemptive figure in Veteran in a New Field symbolizes not only American sacrifices but also potential for recovery.

3 thoughts on “The Civil War and American Art. Part Three

  1. Every time I see this painting it almost makes me cry. It’s so poignant and beautiful. I featured it on my blog once because to me it’s a picture of humanity and deep goodness–even though there’s a lot more to it than that as you have written so eloquently.

    1. It is a very powerful image. I haven’t seen it in person, but I can see how you feel that way. You’re right- it is about humanity and goodness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m sure Sarah appreciates it too!

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