Winslow Homer's Civil War Engravings in New Castle Exhibit

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

Winslow Homer's Civil War Engravings in New Castle Exhibit


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was one of the most prolific artists of his day, and inarguably one of the most famous painters of the American Guilded Age.

But, long before his paintings of seascapes and country life captured the spirit of America, he captured America's strife, particularly that of the Civil War (1861-65).

During the Civil War, Homer was sent to Virginia as an artist- correspondent for Harper's Weekly. While there, he filled his sketchbooks with quick studies depicting scenes that ranged from the everyday activities of the soldiers to the heightened drama of battle.

After the drawings were sent to Harper's in New York, they would be turned into wood engravings able to withstand thousands upon thousands of impressions. Originally used as illustrations that would run alongside text that described the scenes, today, they have become the most collected artistic material of the Civil War era.

The publishers of Harper's, like other magazines of the day, had little regard for the drawings -- or even the engravings that were made from them. The hard blocks used to make the engravings frequently were planed down and reused. And because the resultant prints were part of the weekly papers, they were usually thrown out by readers with equal disregard.

But some have survived, and now, nearly two dozen of Homer's best known Civil War engravings can be seen in "Winslow Homer: The Illustrator (1857-1888)" on display at the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts in New Castle, Lawrence County.

They are among a total of nearly 40 wood engravings by Homer on display, drawn from the collection of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, that, altogether, tell first- person accounts of 19th-century life in this country.

Born in Boston, Mass., Homer started an apprenticeship with the Boston lithographic firm of J.H. Bufford at the age of 19. By 1857, he had started an independent career, employed as a freelance illustrator for magazines such as Ballou's Pictorial and Harper's Weekly, widely considered the best magazine of its time.

In 1859, Homer moved to New York City, where he became a leading illustrator for Harper's. From 1857 to 1888, he completed 288 different images, most for that publication. After 1863, he also worked in oils and watercolors, both of which he developed more fully after 1873, when he largely abandoned his role as an illustrator.

But it is his engravings, which were done during one of the most tumultuous and fascinating periods of American history, that he is best known for, especially in regard to graphically bringing the reader to the battlefield and behind the lines.

"Prior to the Civil War, there was not a whole lot of need for illustration," says Kimberly Koller-Jones, the Hoyt's executive director and chief curator of this exhibition. "Most of what would be in the newspapers and periodicals were Acts of Congress or portraits of politicians, that sort of thing. But when the Civil War happened, there was a great need for people to see what was going on, and a lot of periodicals like Harper's hired artist correspondents to go to the front lines and record what was happening."

In the gallery, works like "The Surgeon at Work at the Rear During an Engagement" (1862) stand out for the graphic depiction of weary warriors on the mend. "The War for the Union, 1862 -- A Bayonet Charge" and "The Sharpshooter" (1862) capture the high drama of battle. …

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