Anonymity and Collectivity : the Civil War Imagery of Winslow Homer and Alexander Gardner
Martonchik, C. J.
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The American Civil War brought many names from relative obscurity into the limelight, making heroes (and villains) of soldiers and civilians, North and South. Not only military and political figures emerged, but cultural figures, such as authors, correspondents, and illustrators, became household names. Two men whose careers were launched by their involvement in the war would end up, in large part, distilling it for their Northern audiences. Winslow Homer and Alexander Gardner are still remembered for quintessential depictions of the American conflict. Homer’s Prisoners from the Front (1866) has become a staple image, epitomizing his early career in the eyes of art historians, and Gardner’s photographs from Antietam, Gettysburg, and Washington, D.C. continue to be circulated, both in print and popular documentaries such as Ken Burns’s The Civil War. What is less often clear is how Homer’s and Gardner’s respective ouvres fit into the larger history of painting and photography in the United States, how they interacted with the changing prerogatives of art-making, and how their works were received by critics and audiences in their own time. Understanding the works of Homer and Gardner in historical context provides a valuable case study of how American visual culture responded to the Civil War, and how the Civil War depended upon American visual culture to create meaning from the conflict. Both Homer and Gardner cut against the grain of nineteenth-century visual convention in the United States. The composition of Homer’s canvases and the content of Gardner’s photographs were antithetical to artistic and photographic norms in portraiture, the most democratic form of visual culture. In creating such contrarian works, they inverted the quintessential purpose of portraiture in the nineteenth century: preserving the individual. Instead, both artists produced a type of anti-portraiture, stripping soldiers of their individual identities (anonymity) and subsuming them into a larger group or category (collectivity). By obscuring the eyes and facial features of his subjects, among other painterly techniques, Homer denied the viewer the chance of recognizing the soldiers he depicted as distinct individuals, as portraiture allows; instead, they were simply soldiers partaking in activities common to soldiers, a type of visual synecdoche. Gardner, taking corpses as his subject and portraying them in a journalistic rather than artistic fashion, also denied soldiers their individual identities, recognizing them only as a collective Dead.