It’s been a while since I did a deep dive on a painting, so I hopped into my Google machine and typed, “greatest American paintings,” and scrolled through the offerings. Personally, I’m not a big fan of portraits and such, or some of the paintings of the earlier American period. I will note, however, that of course, Grant Wood’s 1930 American Gothic was on one of the lists, and something fascinating occurred to me. Besides maybe Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and something from Andy Warhol, like the Campbell’s Soup Cans, is there a more ubiquitous or “known” American painting than American Gothic? Maybe the average person couldn’t conjure the title or the painter, but they would recognize the painting. And yet, the fascinating thing to me: When is the last time you really looked at it? Well, I really looked at it during my search, and saw it anew. I recommend doing that.
But! That being said, I didn’t go with that one for this post because another one caught my attention, and that’s Winslow Homer’s 1865 panting, The Veteran in a New Field. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or more commonly known as the Met, the largest art museum in the United States, Homer painted this soon after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination five days later.
What a backdrop to operate from, which is another reason to find the painting all that more interesting because it was created within the large, looming shadows of a devastating, bloody American Civil War, and the assassination of a president, and yet, if I didn’t tell you the year or that background, this painting could be applicable to the Revolutionary period, the WWI or WWII period, and maybe even the Vietnam period. Unless you’re adept at fashion and would be able to distinguish the fashion of those eras perhaps. (For instance, the Met suggests that at the lower right, the farmer’s discarded jacket is that of a Union soldier, along with a canteen. But, I for one, am having a heck of a time ascertaining that. Maybe I need better eyeballs.) In other words, what I’m saying is, none of those looming shadows appear in this painting, as far as I can tell.
But to back up. Paintings are obviously a visual medium, and right away, this is a painting that catches your eye because of that gorgeous golden wheat towering over the entire painting, even with a man at the focal point. The man is holding a scythe to seemingly work his way through the wheat. But also it evokes the idea that, he’s, as the title suggests, on his new field and as such, has a “new weapon,” as it were for this new “battlefield.”
There’s more to the wheat than I realized. Again, leaning on the Met for help here, I didn’t know that there is a classic photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan called, Harvest of Death, taken at dawn on July 4, 1863 (jeez, Independence Day, no less) on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the day after 51,000 Americans and 5,000 horses died, according to South Carolina Education Television. It remains the bloodiest battle in North American history. So, the Met is suggesting that the wheat calls to attention the idea of the “harvest of death,” but, again, a new kind of harvest, as it were.
Stunning and breath-taking. I could do another blog post merely on that photograph. Wow.
Again, the Met sees the “bountiful wheat” (which itself is a crop of the North) as connoting the Union’s victory in the Civil War, but also as representing a “redemptive future,” and further, a juxtaposition between both death and life, as a “meditation on America’s sacrifices and its potential for recovery and reconciliation.”
But see. I form my impressions before reading any of that, and I had a completely different interpretation. I’m certainly no expert or anything like that, but that’s why I love paintings because we extrapolate from them with our own interpretations.
So, when I read the title and saw the painting, I interpreted it as a veteran trying to acclimate to life back in the civilian world as a farmer after a conflict. However, that process of acclimation is never an easy one. After all, you’re going from being a trained killer and having to kill or be killed — something most people will never be able to relate to — to being back to a normal existence, and at that time, farming was still the primary “normal existence” in American life. Farming is a hard life, no doubt about it, but it still doesn’t compare to kill or be killed. And so, seeing this former soldier in his farming attire, he’s being swallowed up by the wheat. Remember, that’s what caught my attention: the towering wheat, and the wheat is towering over the man. I see that as a metaphor for how acclimating back to normal life after war is a towering challenge, if you will. It’s not easy, even with the scythe in hand.
What do you make of this painting? What was your first impression upon seeing it at the top of the blog before I started discussing it?