Telling Stories: Winslow Homer at the National Gallery

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker:

050808mast_9_r14344_p198Winslow Homer’s first oil painting, which he made in 1863, when he was a twenty-six-year-old freelancer illustrating Civil War scenes for Harper’s Weekly, shows a Union sharpshooter in a tree, balancing a rifle for an imminent shot. The man’s perch is precarious. His concentration is total. Nature—soft tufts of dusky foliage, scraps of yellowish sky—attends indifferently. Decades later, Homer recalled having peered at a man through the telescopic sight of a sharpshooter’s weapon. The impression, he wrote in a letter, “struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service.” This compunction, which I encountered in a text accompanying an engraving of the same subject in a current show at the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C., of about fifty Homers from the museum’s collection, surprises me not for its content but because I don’t think of the extraordinarily stolid Homer as having opinions.

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