The Veteran in a New Field
Artist: Winslow Homer
Medium: Oil on canvas
Citation: The Veteran in a New Field, 1865. Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Oil on canvas. 24 1/8 x 381/8 inches. (61.3 x 96.8 cm.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, 67.187.131.
Rights Holder: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 67.187.131.
Engage! Theme: Participation
Painted at the close of the Civil War, Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field shows one kind of service to the nation—military—exchanged for another, the cultivation of food.
Homer portrays the solitary man as if having just cast off his uniform to resume the farm work he abandoned at the start of the war. The brass buttons on his discarded coat at the lower right identify it as his army uniform; his particular affiliation with the Union cause is shown by the red cloverleaf, the mark of a New York volunteer corps, on his canteen nearby. With his back turned to the viewer, the featureless man is anonymous, an “everyman” who might stand in for any discharged veteran returning to his civilian life.
Ever since George Washington’s example, Americans had honored the ancient Roman ideal of the soldier who voluntarily lays down his arms to go back to the farm. Here, the veteran harvests a bountiful crop.
By showing this harvester using a single-bladed scythe rather than the more usual so-called cradle scythe, Homer also subtly evokes the conventional personification of death as the “grim reaper.” The association was all the more potent at the time the painting was made because news of a record harvest was colored both by oft-invoked wartime metaphors of corpse-strewn battlefields as “harvests of death” and by Lincoln’s recent assassination. Haunted by the specter of war, Homer’s ostensibly peaceful image suggests that the sacrifices made in military service are psychic as well as physical, individual as well as national.
A northerner who began his career as an artist-reporter during the Civil War, Homer made numerous images of camp life among the Union forces. Launching his career as a painter of Civil War scenes, he focused with nonpartisan realism on the generic lot of ordinary soldiers and the universal costs of the conflict.
Who is this man cutting wheat at harvest time? Do we have any clues?
The brass buttons on his coat on the ground indicate that it is part of a military uniform. In fact, the man was a solider in the Civil War and has returned to his farm after the war. Do you know returning veterans? What’s it like for them to go back to their old lives?
The artist has depicted the man turned away from us, giving us no individual identity; his form almost mirrors the tall wheat blowing in the wind. Why do you think the artist does this?
What do you think the soldier’s return to his farm work after the war suggests about America’s future?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
There are many Americans today who have served in the military and fought in wars. Find out how you can contact local veterans and interview them about their experiences and what it means to them to “participate” by serving their country. If they will allow it, photograph them and create an exhibition in the library, or even a set of videos or podcasts of the interviews.
Picturing America (brief description of image, teacher resources).
“Winslow Homer (1836–1910)” in Timeline of Art History.
Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., “A Harvest of Death: The Veteran in a New Field,” in Marc Simpson et al., Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War, exh cat. (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1988), pp. 83-94.
Steven Conn, “Narrative Trauma and Civil War History Painting, or Why Are These Pictures so Terrible?” History and Theory 41 (Dec., 2002), pp. 21–22, 35–37, 40–41.