It might surprise many to learn that one of America’s most beloved landscape artists trained his eye for the sea, surf, and sky on the front lines of the nation’s deadliest struggle.
Winslow Homer, whose famous windswept scenes viscerally evoke the rocky Maine coastline where he spent his later life, began his career in New York City newsrooms as a freelance illustrator for popular journals and periodicals. In 1861 the young, largely self-taught art correspondent made the first of three trips to the front to sketch the Civil War for the pages of Harper’s Weekly.
It was a fruitful time in the world of journalism for those with a talent for drawing what they saw. Photography’s time-consuming process and cumbersome equipment made it inefficient in the field. And publishers, eager to capture the conflict for their readers not only with words but with true-to-life images, turned to artists such as Homer for help.
“Winslow Homer: Eyewitness,” on view at the Harvard Art Museums through Jan. 5, 2020, traces how the artist’s experience as an observer tasked with accurately documenting the conflict helped shape his career and informed much of his later output. Throughout his work in a range of media, the Boston-born Homer often returned to the visual devices and motifs he had honed on the battlefield, depicting his subjects’ every small detail in order to convey an exact place, event, or time of day.