Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
The Whittling Boy, 1873
One of the most admired nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American artists, Winslow Homer captured scenes of contemporary outdoor life. After working as a commercial illustrator of battle scenes and camp life during the American Civil War (1861–65), he traveled extensively in the Northeast, depicting subjects ranging from coastal resorts to bucolic childhood pursuits. His paintings broke new ground in their naturalism and rejection of obvious narrative, and they revealed his exceptional command of natural light. The Whittling Boy presents an idyllic view of a lad seated on a log in a sun-dappled wooded clearing, absorbed in paring wood with a knife. The close-up image of a boy apparently unaware of the onlooker’s presence suggests guileless self-absorption. Childhood innocence, a subject Homer addressed throughout the 1870s, was popular among his contemporaries, as Americans regarded rural life and provincial youth as nostalgic representations of a country that was less fraught before the war.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
Many art history books argue that Winslow Homer’s rural genre scenes of young boys, painted in the years following the American Civil War (1861–65), are celebrations of youth and high spirits. During this period, 1865–76, images of boyhood symbolized the will to rebuild a stronger and more united nation, as well as the country’s attempt to forget the recent conflict and forge a new future. One such painting, Snap the Whip (1872, Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio), depicts a group of children playing a game in a field in front of an old red schoolhouse, and has been perhaps Homer’s most beloved image among the general public (although viewers outside the United States sometimes wonder why). It represents a view of a rural, racially homogeneous America that has become part of the nation’s shared self-image. The boys at play in the painting embody an ideal of childhood innocence; their freedom, vigorousness, happiness, and sense of solidarity can be seen as the qualities of a young nation looking to the future.
Homer’s renderings of boys do not always suggest such pure optimism, however. In The Whittling Boy (1873), he painted a quieter scene featuring a solitary boy absorbed in whittling with a knife in a wooded clearing. This painting reflects the nation’s backward glance in the postwar decade. During this turbulent and confusing period, Americans felt anxious and disoriented, and developed a prevailing, antimodernist sentiment toward the increasingly complex, urbanized way of life that, especially in the North, was animated by technological innovation and rapid industrialization. Homer’s carefree images of boys immersed in pleasurable pursuits indicated a longing for lost innocence and offered his viewers an escape from the harsh realities of contemporary life. Unlike the prospective and optimistic world he created in Snap the Whip, the calm, isolated realm of The Whittling Boy conveys nostalgia for the simpler, less worldly era before the war. It also denotes the nation’s somber mood of reflection in its aftermath.
During the period of post–Civil War Reconstruction, these optimistic and nostalgic scenes of white boys also had implications in terms of race and gender. From 1874 to 1876, Homer painted a group of images of African Americans in the southern state of Virginia. While his earlier Civil War paintings utilized the racial stereotypes of the period without any political critique, his renderings of the 1870s turn such stereotypes into images of tacit social protest. The Watermelon Boys (1876, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York) presents a peaceful, rural scene of three boys—one white and two black—eating together in a field, an idyllic world in which the two races could coexist, if only as children. The Cotton Pickers (1876, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) hints at a darker side of rural America, depicting two African American girls gathering cotton bolls in a boundless field, much as they would have done before the end of slavery. The girl on the right gazes defiantly into the distance, perhaps an indication of high-minded aspirations that lie beyond the cotton field. Today’s viewers might wonder whether she is looking at the same future as the white boys in those earlier paintings. In this context, The Whittling Boy may be seen as Homer’s attempt to articulate his contemporaries’ ambivalent feelings about America’s future.