The weather had turned, and now the rain came softly down in the woods of Virginia for the second day in a row. The trails were thick with mud, and there was not a dry sock in the entire platoon. The only rations available were hard tack biscuits, hardly enough to sustain the body, let alone the mind needed to be a sharpshooter for the Union Army. And Yet Winslow Homer, an artist from Harper’s Weekly in New York, lived as the soldiers did, enduring their hardships side by side.
And he stayed with the sharpshooter to capture his every move in sketches that would be sent back to the home office. Homer camped among the soldiers in a tattered tent. He washed his clothes in the river as they did. This was the Civil War, a blight on the history of these United States, and Winslow Homer was one of a handful of artists that documented this painful period with alarming realism. Though his acclaim would come as a result of his stunning seascapes in watercolor, Homer began his career with the toughest assignment imaginable: record the war.
The camera had only been invented a dozen or so years before the Civil War broke out, so the task of recording the war in images fell to traditional artists as well as to a fledgling field of photographers. Early cameras were large and bulky and required a lot of time to capture an image and then develop them . But traditional artists could record images with a pencil and some paper, much more portable for a correspondent on the move from battleground to battleground.
Winslow Homer was born in 1836 in Boston Massachusetts. His mother was an amateur watercolor artist, and Homer was raised around art and artists. His mother was his first art instructor, yet Homer was largely self-taught. After apprenticing at a lithographer’s shop in Boston, and completing his schooling, Homer went to live in New York to become a commercial illustrator. His employment with the popular political magazine Harper’s Weekly led to an assignment as a war correspondent on the battlefronts of the war that broke out in 1861. Homer did not shy away from depicting the gritty and grisly spectacle that this bloody war wrought on the populace. His attention to detail and adherence to unvarnished realism  earned him respect among other war picture correspondents. But most of Homer’s time with the army was at their training camp, and he had three years to follow the troops into only a few battles. As unafraid as Homer was to capture the horror, and sometimes the boredom, that was war, he never depicted a dead body in any of his drawings .
Check back next Friday for more about how Winslow Homer created his war drawings–and about how they may have affected his later work.
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