Homer work stars in Fort Ward show

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Homer work stars in Fort Ward show

December 14, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

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Winslow Homer wood engraving from Harper's Weekly Courtesy Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site.

December is one of the times when many of us entertain visitors to Alexandria. Relatives and friends walk along King Street with the decorated shops and illuminated trees or stroll down narrow streets with twinkling candles in old windows--ah, they sigh, "This is how American life should look in winter." 

Of course, there is the other side of the coin. What do you do with visitors in between the holiday high points? What will everyone do when you pop into the office to keep the paper flowing? After being mauled all day at the mall, is there a haven of peace without commercialism?

Consider Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site on Braddock Road near Seminary Road as the answer to all these questions. With plenty of parking, a beautiful Civil War site, spacious parkland, a superb museum, Fort Ward is one of the best places for brisk walks, fun adventures and fascinating exhibits. The library is an excellent place for Civil War research.

The new exhibit, "In the Path of War, Alexandria, Virginia 1861-1865" offers a special opportunity for you to dovetail museum exhibits to appreciate history and art. Until December 15th (and periodically in 1996) you will have a rare chance to see one of Winslow Homer's earliest paintings at Ford Ward Museum. You can also go to the National Gallery of Art for the fantastic Winslow Homer exhibit. Then go to Mount Vernon to enjoy the holiday decorations and compare the mansion to Homer's 1861 watercolor.

The National Gallery of Art brochure on the exhibit states that Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is "widely regarded as the greatest American artist of the nineteenth century...." Although he is most famous for his later works of the Maine seascapes, Homer began his painting career as a Civil War artist for Harper's Weekly. Before the war he was a free lance illustrator, and contributed many wood engravings for widely read magazines.

When you enter the National Gallery's exhibit, the first painting is titled Sharpshooter (1863), and it is credited as his "first important painting of the conflict." His paintings differ from the conventional depiction of warfare with proud leaders on tall horses. Homer, as the contemporary Impressionists in Europe, dealt with the reality of daily life. The National Gallery brochure states: "Scenes of camp life during the calm interludes between battles sympathetically illuminate the physical and psychological plight of ordinary individual soldiers."

According to Susan Cumbey, Curator at Ford Ward Museum, Homer came to Alexandria on his way to the front in Fall 1861 and again in the Spring 1862. The exhibit includes his original pass to the front and the Mount Vernon watercolor, which predates his war depictions. The painting is on loan from the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, and is not regularly displayed at Mount Vernon due to its fragile nature. Call 703-838-4848. I hope you will see the National Gallery exhibit to appreciate the imagery Homer provides us of real people--soldiers, women, children, freed African Americans--from our past.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.