Powerful Anti-Slavery Painting

Historian Peter Wood’s visit to USF concludes Thursday after sharing insights about Winslow Homer’s long-missing artwork.


By Barbara Melendez

     USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 9, 2012) – An African American woman stands in the doorway of a shack, one hand on her stomach. In the distance separated by a fence is a group of Union soldiers being marched by Confederate soldiers to the Andersonville prison camp.


A simple scene from the Civil War? Not so.


With this imagery Winslow Homer created a “revolutionary painting” with an anti-slavery message, one that remained hidden until the world was ready to receive it, or so it seems to historian Peter Wood. Using this painting as his inspiration, Wood found a way to make art and history work together to tell a moving story – one he shared during the first week of Black History Month at the USF Tampa Library.


In addition to this event, Wood, a professor emeritus from Duke University, will participate in an open house in the USF Department of Anthropology Heritage Research Lab (SOC 6) at 12:30 Thursday, Feb. 9. It will be followed by a graduate session from 2 to 4 p.m. in Associate Professor Antoinette Jackson’s Research Methods in Applied Anthropology class (SOC 30) which is open to students. The day concludes with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Contact Assistant Professor Eric Duke or Associate Professor and Africana Studies Chair Cheryl Rodriguez for more information.  Interested faculty and students will gather for dinner at Ella’s in Seminole Heights afterwards.


Presented by the USF Department of Anthropology, “Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War” – the title of Wood’s lecture and his book of the same name – was complete with numerous examples to illustrate his points. In both, the artist and his paintings serve as jumping off points to talk about the Civil War in a profound way. Homer’s works during the mid-1800s and the disappearance and rediscovery of the central painting reveal information both about Homer and the struggle to end slavery.   


Wood described what is well known about Homer, an artist famous for his paintings of the sea, seaside scenes, sailors and images of children. Somewhat less well known are his Civil War illustrations and paintings, save one that became iconic, Prisoners From the Front – a painting of Union and Confederate soldiers. Unknown until almost 100 years later is the painting Near Andersonville. In Wood’s lecture, these paintings and Homer’s other works from the Civil War period became documentaries of a sort, as he pointed out subtle details that conveyed powerful messages to his contemporaries and for posterity.


His audience learned that the young Homer started out as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly magazine in the early days of the craft. Photographers were rare and Homer was sent to draw scenes of soldiers and battles as part of the war reporting for this publication. He began studying oil painting during the same period. He exhibited talent from the start with his very first work, The Sharpshooter.


Homer was changed by the war and in his illustrations began using symbolism to convey some of his philosophical leanings even as he left room for interpretation.


Wood stated that Homer’s “style had a Rorschach Test quality that leaves it up to you who you’re rooting for. He does it again and again.”


The revolutionary aspect of Near Andersonville is its subject. A Black woman for the very first time is “asked to be taken seriously,” Wood said. Up to that time depictions of African American men and women were typically vicious caricatures and demeaning, as some of Wood’s examples showed. Homer was one of the first American artists to make enslaved people central figures – not just part of the background – and to show the world around them from their perspective. “Homer put them front and center.”


Detail by detail, Wood revealed how Homer’s work, with its multilayered meanings, speaks volumes.


Wood explained that the very word “Andersonville” evoked the kind of image one would get at the mention of Abu Ghraib – a notorious and frightful prison camp – the Confederacy’s largest. Photos of the emaciated surviving soldiers and period drawings of the stockade made it clear that it was a horrible overcrowded, unprotected place of misery and death. It’s estimated that more than 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned and of those nearly 13,000 died there.


The woman at the center of this painting, as well as Homer’s contemporaries, knew right away that the captured soldiers were doomed. But the outcome of the war was very uncertain at the time – around 1866. The woman could very well be a symbol of hope. Her bandana resembles the French liberty style of head scarf, not the typical one worn by enslaved women. Though echoing the colors in the distant Confederate flag carried by the Confederate soldiers, it is shown going in the opposite direction.


She stands in the doorway of a shack, the kind that would normally have a mud floor. But she’s standing in the threshold on a piece of wood atop a small crossroad of planks that, as Wood pointed out, would have special resonance for people who saw the painting at that time. Platforms and planks stood for positions being taken in politics and “the Republican platform was all about planks,” many dealing with the abolition of slavery, Wood said. The term “mudsill” was a derogatory one in connection with African Americans and their position in the world and by elevating her, Homer’s statement is made.


The hand on her belly suggests she might be pregnant and if so the onlooker is asked to consider what it means. Concern for the next generation, Wood suggests. This interpretation is supported by a number of gourds on the fence, symbols of fertility, but they also stand for the North Star in the formation of the Big Dipper, known to escaping slaves as the “drinking gourd,” the star that pointed the way to freedom.


“You are invited to go inside her head, her world, her situation. She’s on the threshold; her future is uncertain, as close to freedom as she’s ever been in her life,” Wood said.


Near Andersonville hung in the dining room of Sarah Louise Kellogg, its first owner, and then relegated to an attic until her survivors – part of the Horace Kellogg Corbin family – were about to dispose of it. Homer’s name struck a bell and the painting was rescued and donated to the Newark Museum.


The timing of the painting’s discovery appears to have a serendipitous significance. 


“Like a metaphor, the painting disappeared from American consciousness. It was put up in the attic in the same way African Americans had been put in the attic, so to speak. It’s uncanny that it was found in the 1960s,” he said. The title only became known in 1987.


Referring to Homer’s painting Prisoners From the Front, Wood said, “This was the Civil War my teachers and parents taught me about.” Referring to Near Andersonville, “This is the image we need for the 21st Century.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.