No white American of the Civil War era offered a more sympathetic metaphor for the black experience than Winslow Homer did in juxtaposing slavery with the Andersonville prison camp. Peter H. Wood's study of Homer's Near Andersonville (1866), originally presented as the Nathan I. Huggins Lectures at Harvard University, provides an alert, informed, and imaginative analysis that in many ways serves as a model for the reading of a great topical work of art.
Wood concisely but ably situates Homer in the specific antebellum and wartime contexts in which the artist grew up and launched his career, and he outlines several important planes of interpretation that shed light on the canvas. Although he delivered these lectures before the publication of Benjamin G. Cloyd's Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory (2010), Wood effectively conveys the horror and outrage with which Northerners viewed Andersonville. He sets the dismal backfire of General George M. Stoneman's attempt to rescue Union prisoners in late July 1864 against the backdrop of the ongoing presidential campaign, succumbing to a conventionally melodramatic view of Lincoln's electoral prospects but rightly emphasizing that the summer was a period of crisis in the Union commitment to emancipation and in southern slaves' thinking about the relative risks involved in fleeing across the military lines or awaiting the advance of the Union army. Wood also shrewdly explores the ideological commitments of the first owner of the painting, a former missionary schoolteacher in the Port Royal laboratory for Reconstruction whose appreciation for the canvas nicely supports [End Page 252] Wood's argument about the contemporary resonance of Homer's work.
Wood's attention to provenance typifies the way in which he adopts strategies associated almost exclusively with art historians. Drawing on his more than three decades of research on Homer, he moves easily between famous canvases and ephemeral visual culture, including not only magazine illustrations that Homer generated but also prints to which he responded. Similarly, Wood touches briefly but profitably on the relationship between Homer and Eastman Johnson and on similarities between Near Andersonville and works by Vermeer, Géricault, and Manet. These observations demonstrate commendable intellectual range and, in several instances, wise attention to the formal organization of the painting as well as its more direct thematic subject.
It is in the concentrated, thoughtful act of looking that this book truly excels. Wood painstakingly gleans every shred of visual information from the canvas, and he subjects each detail to a creative process of generalization. He persuasively identifies significance in many lines, shadows, gestures, and subordinate objects. The patient discipline so evident in this research gives way in the last of Wood's three essays to a flurry of insights about the condition of slavery and the possibilities of a profoundly antislavery vision. The dramatic contrast in intellectual pace helps to make the book a delight to read.
Over the last several decades a host of scholars trained in art history such as T. J. Clark, Albert Boime, and Kirk Savage have influenced understandings of the past in ways that extend well beyond their academic fields. Peter Wood is the rare historian who has in turn drawn skillfully on the specialized methods of art history. The historical profession is indebted to him for that leadership, and the reader will be indebted to him for this little gem of scholarship. [End Page 253]
Thomas J. Brown teaches history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. He is the editor of Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (2011).