The admired American painter Winslow Homer rose to national attention during the Civil War. But one of his most important early images remained unknown for a century. The renowned artist is best known for depicting ships and sailors, hunters and fishermen, rural vignettes and coastal scenes. Yet he also created some of the first serious black figures in American art. Near Andersonville (1865–66) is the earliest and least known of these impressive images.
Peter Wood, a leading expert on Homer’s images of blacks, reveals the long-hidden story of this remarkable Civil War painting. His brisk narrative locates the picture in southwest Georgia in August 1864 and provides its military and political context. Wood underscores the agony of the Andersonville prison camp and highlights a huge but little-known cavalry foray ordered by General Sherman as he laid siege to Atlanta. Homer’s image takes viewers “behind enemy lines” to consider the utter failure of “Stoneman’s Raid” from the perspective of an enslaved black Southerner.
By examining the interplay of symbolic elements, Wood reveals a picture pregnant with meaning. He links it to Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign of 1864 and underscores the enduring importance of Homer’s thoughtful black woman. The painter adopted a bottom-up perspective on slavery and emancipation that most scholars needed another century to discover. By integrating art and history, Wood’s provocative study gives us a fresh vantage point on Homer’s early career, the struggle to end slavery, and the dramatic closing years of the Civil War.
In Near Andersonville, Wood tells the captivating story of an abandoned painting with the meticulousness of a historian and the panache of a novelist. More than just an enigmatic painting, Near Andersonville is a testament to the passions of white abolitionists, and the halting confusion of the freed slaves they cared for. This short book is a quick, learned, and touching read.
In his engrossing book by the same name, Wood argues that [Winslow Homer’s] Near Andersonville ‘explores the question’ of ‘What happens…if any part of the Civil War drama is viewed explicitly from the vantage point of the enslaved.’ Wood offers an illuminating, if at times speculative, reading of the image… His careful reconstruction of the painting’s provenance, and his account of the discovery of the painting’s title, are every bit as rewarding as his careful analysis of the visual symbolism of the painting itself.
[A] jewel of a book… This study began as a series of Nathan Huggins Lectures at Harvard, and it reads just like a really good lecture: engaging, informative, easy to listen to, and fully thought provoking. Wood, no stranger to Homer, having coauthored a study of the painter’s images of African Americans in 1988, accomplishes the deceptively difficult task of making a subject about which he knows a great deal entirely accessible to anyone who wants to pick up this book.
What a wonderful book Peter Wood has written. He has taken one of Winslow Homer’s most rarely studied paintings and, literally and metaphorically, given it back its story. In the process Near Andersonville becomes both a window opening onto the past and a mirror reflecting our own time.
An enormously creative and insightful new perspective on one of the most important and tragic episodes in American history. Wood’s sensitive and intelligent reading of Homer’s works shows that there are indeed many ways to illuminate the past.
Wood has unraveled the deep and subtle meanings expressed in Near Andersonville. The ambiguities of slavery and freedom, of the past and future framed by war, are brilliantly analyzed in this powerful and compelling book.
A magnificently focused meditation that arrives at a completely fresh perspective on the painting and its precise Civil War background. Readers will see Homer’s Near Andersonville anew after engaging with Peter Wood’s literally eye-opening work.
Wood’s detective work and his interpretive conclusions persuade us that Homer understood and was affected by the moral ramifications of the Civil War and that he felt deep empathy toward the African Americans caught up in the conflict.
Peter Wood is one of the most curious, original, and rewarding historians of our time and in Near Andersonville all his talents are on full display. Part detective story, part history, and part art criticism, this book is a masterpiece.
- 152 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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