The Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty

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The Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty
Winslow Homer
published by Harper's Weekly November 15, 1862
Wood engraving on paper
9 1/8 x 13 3/4 in. (image); 11 3/4 x 16 1/16 in. (sheet)
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Arthur and Hilda Wenig

Winslow Homer began his artistic career as an apprentice in a printing business where he learned how to make illustrations that could be reproduced in large numbers by processes such as lithography and wood engraving. Later, when he focused more on oil painting, he relied on wood engravings to disseminate copies of his images. When this picture was published in Harper’s Weekly on November 15, 1862 it advertised his new career by noting in its title, “From a painting by W. Homer, Esq.” Homer’s oil painting was of the same subject, simply entitled Sharpshooter (begun in 1862 and completed in 1863), and was compositionally similar to the engraving. Homer’s many depictions of life in the Union army attracted wide public attention. He soon gained a reputation as an illustrator who produced moving images of contemporary life. He became increasingly skilled at making pictures like this in a variety of media.

Civil War Americans were sometimes uncomfortable with the idea of a “sharpshooter,” mostly because these soldiers singled out individual men to be shot, often outside the main action of battle. For some, this felt more like murder than war. But elite sharpshooting units were important for both Confederate and Union armies, both to defend weak positions and to soften up the enemy in advance of a larger attack. Homer depicts the sharpshooter in a classic, accurate pose—hidden in a tree, above the action. Note that Homer indicates that he is on “picket duty,” guarding the outside lines of the army’s main camp against enemy attack.

1. How has Homer created a sense of anticipation in the image, as the sharpshooter awaits his target?

2. Compare this print to Gardner’s Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter. What do these two images tell you about the experience of being a sharpshooter in the army? 

Further reading:
Plaster, Major John. Sharpshooting in the Civil War. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 2009.

Portland Museum of Art. “Winslow Homer Illustrations.” Accessed February 29, 2012.
(For more details on the image click on “Learn More about 20 Illustrations.”)

Simpson, Marc. Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1988.

Tatham, David. Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press: 2003.

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