The Poetics of Place

By Denenberg, Thomas A. | USA TODAY, May 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Poetics of Place

Denenberg, Thomas A., USA TODAY

IN HONOR of the centennial of his death, "Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place" will be on view June 5-Sept, 6 at Maine's Portland Museum of Art, showcasing 20 works from the museum's collection of Homer watercolors and oils. The exhibition will feature paintings considered to be among the nation's most-treasured canvases, including "Artists Sketching in the White Mountains" (1868) and "Weatherbeaten" (1894), as well as "The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty" (1863), Homer's first oil painting.

Long understood to be one of the most important painters in the history of American art, Homer (1836-1910) lived in an age when the U.S. grew from a young country of small towns into a modern industrial nation. Throughout his career as a graphic artist, genre painter, and chronicler of the ragged Maine coast, Homer provided his clients with images that helped create a sense of place in this era of rapid change and growth.


Homer is one of a handful of American artists to achieve a reputation in multiple media, initially working as a lithographer, then turning to commercial illustration, painting, watercolor, and printmaking. His work is at once accessible and mysterious. Running against the tide of popular opinion, the notion that "a picture which does not tell its own story is but half a picture," Homer was ever-willing to leave a narrative silence in his art, both graphic and fine.

His depiction of a sharpshooter--which appeared in two formats, an engraving and a painting--is an early example of his ability to tell a story without an ending. The image, debuting in the popular imagination as a wood engraving reproduced in Harper's Weekly in November 1862, bore the legend "The Army of the Potomac--A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty. (From a Painting by W. Homer, Esq.)." The parenthetical caption has puzzled students for generations because Homer did not sign the work until 1863 or exhibit it publicly for some months thereafter. However, whether the paint was dry when the woodcut was published matters less than the subtle differences between the two versions and the cultural work of each image.

For the 120,000 subscribers who paid $2.50 a year for the five-year-old magazine, Homer's "Sharp-Shooter" arrived by mail and signaled a shift in the visual reportage of the American Civil War. The conflict, which had begun in April of the previous year with a formal barrage upon Fort Sumter followed by the jejune clash of volunteers at Bull Run, had, by the autumn of 1862, become a sobering and sanguinary affair. Seven brutal clashes during the Peninsula Campaign, a second large battle at Manassas, and the fierce carnage of Antietam in September--the single bloodiest day in American history--riveted the attention of a population that held a lingering belief in the nobility of arms. The songs and banners of 1861 that had accompanied Abraham Lincoln's call for 90-day troops to suppress the rebellion receded in popular memory, and both sides moved to develop the military infrastructure required to pursue hostilities at length and to the bitter end. The war matured in 1862, and this, then, is the moment captured by Homer.

Gone by the time of "A Sharp-Shooter" were romantic images of flags unfurled, flashing sabers, and batteries overrun by natty cavalrymen. Past was the lighthearted notion that using a bench-rest rifle in combat was little more than target shooting--a supposition implied by Harper's the previous autumn when the magazine featured a montage on the cover to illustrate a brief article on Berdan's Sharpshooters (led by Col. Francis Peteler), one of the Union's most celebrated regiments.

In these early days of the war, this cover depicted a carnival-like atmosphere in camp, with vignettes of soldiers loading and firing target rifles under the approving eyes of men in top hats and women in crinolines. In the accompanying article, little mention is made of the cover imagery, but great emphasis is placed on the morality of the men from New Hampshire in the regiment, relying on a popular stereotype of the steady habits found in northern New England.

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