Monday, May 28, 2007

Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field"


I once saw a documentary on America or more to the point America as seen through its art. Some famous guy originally from Australia whose name I cannot remember or Google up, talked about American art, visual art, and on the whole it was very good and interesting and filled in that time between supper and bed quit nicely.

But when he talked about the above painting, I saw something he did not see. This show was some time ago and I'm only now bringing to anyone's attention, but that's what blogs are for.

I've since went out and did some Googling on the subject and what I can find agree with what I heard earlier. The art work represents all kinds of Civil War related things. This site represents what I heard several years ago. References to Cincinnatus, swords into ploughshares, Lincoln assignation, and even the soldier's having mown down troops as he does the wheat in the painting are listed as commentary on the piece.

I had seen the work before it showed in the PBS story. When I saw it – a picture book probably – I knew that Homer had been in the Civil War, and what I saw was nothing like what I've saw on the PBS special or read elsewhere.

This is what I saw:

The soldier knows how to thresh wheat. He had done that since he was old enough to stand and work, and was sent into to the field to work all day. The drudgery of physical labor with no end in sight, for a young man, must have been a terrible future when he was young and working day after day in the field. No future but hard work in the field.

And then the Civil War came along and he went on an adventure. The war offered an escape from the wheat field and a chance to be with other men. Of course, it became all the terrible things mentioned in the usual commentary of the painting, the killing, witnessing friends and comrades being killed, and the life changing experiences more eloquently noted than I could. And the soldier survived the war.

On the way home, maybe at the fields that surround his home, he comes upon that once hated task from which war had offered an escape. For one brief moment he could return to the time before the war. He picked up the scythe and began to do what had hated just a few short years ago, only now it was a labor of love.

If he moved just right, he could capture that boyhood motion and for one brief moment return to a home that is forever gone. No matter how much he has to work in the field from now own, that boy that had hated it so and that veteran that returned to so loved it will always be with him.
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