Civil War artist's work on display at Athens, Tenn., museum

Civil War artist's work on display at Athens, Tenn., museum

July 30th, 2011 by Randall Higgins in News

Mary Alton explains a collection of Winslow Homer prints to second- and third-graders taking part in a summer YMCA program. The McMinn County Living Heritage Museum opened an exhibition of Winslow Homer prints Friday depicting the Civil War era. Thirty of the museum's 50 Homer prints collection will be on display through Aug. 26.

Photo by Randall Higgins/Times Free Press.

ATHENS, Tenn. - Winslow Homer began his artistic career as an embedded "special artist" with Civil War troops for Harper's Weekly magazine.

Thirty of those images from battlefields and the homefront went on display Friday at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum. The exhibit involves part of more than 50 Winslow Homer images taken from Harpers Weekly donated by a local family to the museum in the 1980s.

The exhibit, part of the museum's continuing sesquicentennial events remembering the war, will be on display through Aug. 26.

"There's a mix of what's going on on the battlefield and what is happening at home," museum curator Lisa Chastain said.

In a world of streaming video from Afghanistan or Iraq, it's hard to imagine a battlefield artist hurriedly sketching the men he had come to know on the battlefield, then getting those sketches to New York to be engraved, printed and distributed, she said.

There are battle scenes, a sharpshooter waiting patiently in a tree for a target to appear, women sewing and packing cartridges and a group toasting "Our Next President" with Ulysses S. Grant in the foreground.

"So the exhibit tells the whole story of the war," Chastain said.

Museum Executive Director Ashley Rush said many prints tell a personal story. One features a "special artist" sketching a group of soldiers, and it could be a self-portrait of Homer, Rush said.

"Winslow Homer didn't imagine these scenes. He was there," Rush said. "He was kind of like reporters and photographers that go to the wars today. These were men he likely saw day-to-day. So it was very personal."

Both the North and the South are depicted in the prints, Rush said, because Southern families were getting Harper's Weekly, too.

At the age of 25, Winslow Homer went to war in the spring of 1861, and he was exempted from fighting because of his special artist status. After documenting the war, Homer went to Paris to study art, then spent the rest of his life creating images of peace, landscapes and seascapes.

The only non-Civil War print in the collection on display in Athens is his iconic image of children at play at a country school. The print, and the game, were called "Snap The Whip."

Second- and third-graders from the local YMCA summer program saw the prints Friday as part of a field trip. After seeing "Snap The Whip," they tried the game, too. It was sort of like Red Rover, one of them said.

Next on the museum's Civil War calendar of events will be images of the era done in modern quilts. Chastain said quilters now are at work on their projects for the museum's annual quilt show in September. There will be some original Civil War-era quilts on display, too, she said.