Winslow Homer's Wartime Chronicles

Article excerpt

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was one of America's first war correspondents. He covered the Civil War as an artist for Harper's Weekly, and his insightful drawings of men at the front largely formed the public's image of the war. He lived with the Union troops, sharing their risks and hardships, for four long years.

Central to the artist's work of this period is "Home, Sweet Home" (circa 1863), which was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Art for $2.64 million and is the centerpiece of the gallery's current exhibit "Winslow Homer and the Civil War: Recent Acquisitions." This oil painting and some 20 works on paper shown with it underline Homer's sympathetic, democratic approach to illustrating the war.

The painting shows two Union infantrymen listening to a regimental band playing the well-known song. Homer focuses on two figures lost in thought, their faces shaded, with others relaxing and listening in the background. It's the quintessential painting of homesickness and longing suffered by ordinary men.

His war images were powerful because he focused on ordinary soldiers instead of officers leading men into battle. Such scenes of camp life depict the physical and psychological toll on ordinary Army recruits. The artist also showed the details of their "home" away from home: the tent, a small pot cooking on a smoking fire and hardtack on a tin plate.

The painting established Homer as a painter. Enthusiastically admired when first displayed at New York's National Academy of Design in 1863, it was soon sold. It is still greatly admired today, enough for the gallery to have set an auction record for a Homer oil painting, surpassing the $1.87 million set in 1980. The painting is also the most expensive American picture the gallery has bought at auction since 1985, when it purchased Rembrandt Peale's "Rubens Peale With a Geranium" for $4 million.

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"Home, Sweet Home" rounds out the gallery's Homer holdings by providing the beginning link for a collection that now spans the artist's career to his last great painting, "Right and Left" (1909), which shows two goldeneyes just as they've been shot. Several other Homer oils can be seen in galleries 68 and 71 across the East Garden Court from the show, including the popular "Breezing Up" (1876), which was displayed in the gallery's Homer blockbuster retrospective exhibit of 1995.

The exhibit also includes drawings and watercolors donated by several collectors, notably Edmund L.G. Zalinski II and Nancy Voorhees.

Mr. Zalinski was so impressed with the gallery's 225-work Homer retrospective in 1995, and the enormous interest it generated, that he donated 18 sheets of Homer drawings, some double-sided, the next year. His grandfather, Maj. Edmund L.G. Zalinski, had met Homer during the early days of the war when he was a military attache to Gen. Nelson A. Miles. According to Mr. Zalinski, the artist and the major maintained a friendship through the years, when both lived in New York City and were members of the Century Club on 44th Street. Homer gave the drawings to Maj. Zalinski in 1904, with a letter of conveyance saying he hoped the drawings "would amuse" Maj. Zalinski.

Among the Zalinski drawings is the Homer sketch "Two of Sheridan's Scouts" (1865), used later for the handsome watercolor "Two Scouts" (1887), which was given by Miss Voorhees in 1992. Century Magazine reproduced the drawing, leading a New York collector to commission Homer to paint it in watercolors two decades later. …