A s an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, Winslow Homer’s depictions of camp life in the Union Army endeared him to Northern readers during the American Civil War. Moving among the ranks, Homer found less interest in the deeds of Generals than the daily work of soldiering. These illustrations were popular with Harper’s readers, as Homer’s sympathetic eye for detail made his drawings believable. He also possessed an incredible awareness of the tonal potential of the medium of wood engraving, and took complete advantage of this in preparing his drawings for publication. The success of Homer’s work may be, in part, due to his explorations as a painter, which he began in earnest in 1862. Illustration was Homer’s main source of income, but painting was his passion. Many of his published illustrations have a parallel in painting, and it is easy to imagine a symbiotic relationship between Homer’s exploration of a single image through both oil and lead.
After the close of hostilities in 1864, America began the long process of healing. Reconstruction in the South, a radical social and economic restructuring, had its parallel in the lived experience of individual Americans, North and South, few of whom remained untouched by the pall of death and injury cast by the conflict. Homer processed the war through painting, and in 1866, won acclaim for an oil, Prisoner’s from the Front, (https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/22.207/) when it was selected as an official entry the1867 Exposition Universalle in Paris. Winslow Homer, now just 30 years old, took advantage of the opportunity and left New York for a ten month sojourn to France, where he visited museums, drew the local sights, and managed to complete seventeen paintings.
Upon returning to America, Homer, despite an intention to break free from illustration in order to paint full time, accepted work from a number of magazines and periodicals. Over the next eight years, illustrations by Winslow Homer appeared in Our Young Folks, Every Saturday, Appleton’s Journal of Literature, Science, and Arts, Harper’s Bazaar, Galaxy, Harper’s Weekly, and the Riverside Magazine for Young People. Many of these reflected themes dear to Homer’s heart – outdoor activities and the independent spirit of American women, to name but two – but none were more popular with the American public than the illustrations Homer devoted to children. It was as if the lifting of the trauma of war had re-focused American priorities, engendering an embracing love affair with the innocence and playfulness of childhood. In the twenty years following the war, both Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain would produce classics of children’s literature – Alcott’s Little Women, 1868 and Little Men, 1871, followed by Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876, and Huckleberry Finn, 1881.
Homer’s stature as one of America’s premier illustrators provided him with a degree of creative freedom in choice of subject and design. Though he would eventually find the financial benefits of illustration unnecessary, Homer, from 1867 until 1875, continued his practice of translating his drawings into both wood engravings and oils, producing some of the most endearing images of childhood in American history. In tune with the tenor of his time, Homer’s drawings reconnected America with the hallmarks of childhood – play, adventure, wander, wonder, and the simple joy of friends – reminding adult readers of a time when they, too, were once young and the world was fresh with possibility.
Homer’s wood engravings of children open an intriguing window into the priorities of peace in post-war rural America. The small engravings, published by Our Young Folks after Homer returned from Europe, are more traditionally illustrative and accompanied stories written for children. The familiar activities found on the pages of Our Young Folks – picking berries and apples, catching and watching birds, helping with farm work, or sitting with friends – reflected the experience of children across America. These themes expanded to full-page compositions in the early 1870’s, and drew more heavily from Homer’s New England roots. Primarily published in Harper’s Weekly, groups of children play by the beach or at school, bake clams, go fishing or steal swallow eggs.
The most iconic of these images is Snap the Whip, a running game of indescribable exhilaration. Based on the painting by the same name in the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio (there is also a version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/50.41/), the editors at Harper’s apparently recognized the importance of this image and had Homer draw it on a double block to be printed across two pages.
Though the majority of Homer’s work reflects on the ideal of rural childhood, Homer was a realist – many of the images of young adulthood include aspects of work and future professions. One image, The Noon Recess, gives us both. In the 1870’s American education began to evolve from a predominance of strict male schoolmasters to the welcome presence of trained women embracing theories reflective of a more understanding approach to the education of the young.
These teachers, usually single women, were often only several years older than the children they taught. In The Noon Recess, Homer turns a sympathetic eye toward one such teacher. The school day is long and recess an enjoyable moment for all. Unfortunately, those who have not taken sufficient time to prepare their lessons at home forego this pleasure. Though the young teacher’s expression seems a study in frustration, it is not clear what she clings to most, the mourning of youthful days past or the realization of duty’s present demands. Homer clearly has sympathy for both.
This gentle sadness reveals something of Homer’s humanity that, perhaps, lies parallel to his own desire to move from the financial surety of illustration to the more tentative life of a painter. None of his wood engravings more clearly, or more devastatingly, reveals this than The Morning Bell. Published in 1874 in Harper’s Weekly, The Morning Bell depicts six individuals walking over a bridge to work in a mill or factory. With the bell swinging above the mill, each person is seen alone, spatially separate from the others.
The only two people standing close to each other, are the figures on the right, closest to the viewer. Though connected, they could not be more different. The woman to the left, wrapped in a shawl and carrying a lunch pail, seems bent by age, resigned to the work she is committed to complete. The younger woman, on the right, also carrying a pail, takes one last, long, look directly at the viewer before crossing the factory bridge. Homer intends us to read these figures as personifications of experience and innocence. Here is where childhood ends. The young girl looks past the viewer, reflecting not on what she is going toward, but on what she is leaving behind.
Homer began this composition in oil as The Mill in 1871. Harper’s Weekly accepted Homer’s continued development of this theme – the painting is less pointed –for publication in 1873. Harper’s Weekly, in effort to emphasize the dehumanizing aspect of factory work, added a poem to accompany The Morning Bell. Its last stanza reads as follows:
And so the morning bell rings ever on,
And so the weary feet obey its call,
Till o’er the earth silence at last shall come.
And death bring peace and rest alike to all.
Sobering as Harper’s thought may be, overall, Winslow Homer’s depictions of 19th century children are to the study of post-Civil War America what Norman Rockwell’s illustrations of childhood are to the mid-20th century. Each present an ideal: the right of every child to grow up without fear, surrounded and challenged by the wonder, romance, adventure, and beauty of the natural environment. It is a thought offering much to those gifted with guiding children through the mind-numbing intricacies of our 21st century techno-culture. An ideal worth embracing.
Featured Image: Waiting for a Bite, Winslow Homer, 1836-1910, Wood Engraving, Harper’s Weekly, August 1874