Following the end of the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman famously reflected, “The real war will never get in the books…Its interior history will not only never be written—its practicality, minutiae of deed and passions, will never be even suggested.” (Specimen Days & Collect, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1882, pp. 80-81) As Eleanor Jones Harvey writes, “[Winslow] Homer understood the dilemma of painting Whitman’s ‘real war,’ that of the common soldier rather than the heroics of generals on horseback or the impersonality of panoramic sweeps of troops on the chessboard of battle. Instead Homer would go deep, look inward, and portray individual soldiers with a keen insight often lacking in depictions of men in uniform.” (The Civil War and American Art, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2012, p. 151) Striking a delicate balance between honest reporting and sympathetic storytelling to capture the early morning routine of a Union Army camp, the present work embodies this intimate quality of Homer’s finest war imagery, which distinguished him from his contemporaries and launched his career among the leading American artists of the nineteenth century.
Homer first visited the front lines of the Civil War in October 1861 as a twenty-five-year-old artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. He would return in April 1862 and Spring 1864, gathering material for black-and-white magazine illustrations. Accompanying General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in Virginia, Homer observed the Peninsula Campaign and the Siege of Yorktown. His sketches from life captured the full spectrum of activities he observed, from the daily routines and times of rest to troops on the move and at gunfire. In addition to fulfilling his commission, these drawings and experiences would inform Homer’s first important oil paintings, including Home, Sweet Home (circa 1863, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) When exhibited at the National Academy in 1863, Homer’s nuanced sensitivity within the painting garnered him immediate acclaim. As one critic declared, "Winslow Homer is one of those few young artists who make a decided impression of their power with their very first contributions to the Academy...The delicacy and strength of emotion which reign throughout this little picture are not surpassed in the entire exhibition." (as quoted in M. Simpson, Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco, California, 1988, p. 147)
In Sounding Reveille, Homer similarly depicts the soldiers with an intimate focus, even while also conveying the full expanse of the Union camp with tents as far as the eye can see. Although inscribed “1865,” Abigail Gerdts asserts that the painting was completed shortly before its exhibition at the Century Association in October 1871, based on a stamp on the reverse of the canvas. (Record of Works by Winslow Homer: 1867 through 1876, vol. II, New York, 2014, pp. 146-47) Around this time Homer also exhibited A Rainy Day in Camp (1871, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which Lloyd Goodrich posits was started during the war years and then revisited and completed prior to its February 1871 showing. Like A Rainy Day in Camp, Sounding Reveille is a deliberately designed composite of various scenes Homer had observed during his multiple visits to the front lines. Three specific studies, now in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, appear to have inspired the present work: Man Wearing Zouave’s Cap (circa 1861); Young Soldier (circa 1863); and Drummer’s Resting before Tents (circa 1861-62). In addition, the “61” inscribed on the knapsack in front of the leftmost tent connects the painting to Homer’s time spent with the 61st New York Infantry in 1862.
In Sounding Reveille, Homer combines these memories into a poignant moment of routine and reflection. Reveille was an important part of daily life in the army, which signaled the start of the day for soldiers at camp. An 1865 account of the practice describes, “The wind sweeping gently through the tall pines overhead only serves to lull to deeper repose the slumbering soldier, who in his elevation the clear-toned bugle sounds out the reveille, and another and another resounds, until the startled echoes double and treble the clarion calls. Intermingled with this comes the beating of drums, often rattling and jarring on unwilling ears. In a few moments the peaceful quiet is replaced by noise and tumult, arising from hill and dale, from hill and forest.” (as quoted in Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War, p. 234) The buglers and drummer boys who sounded this daily alarm were often the youngest members of camp, sometimes as young as nine, and also worked as barbers, valets and burial details during the war.
In the present work, Homer depicts these young soldiers with a quiet dignity, focusing on the simplicity of daily routine. Drummer boys were often romanticized in art of the period, for example in Eastman Johnson’s Wounded Drummer Boy (1871, Union League Club, New York); however, here Homer takes a subtler approach, focusing on the unique character of each individual subject. While the bugler begins his song standing tall with hand on hip, his two accompanying drummers focus with their heads down on the task at hand. Each glowing figure around the campfire, even while depicted in small scale in the background, also has a unique pose and demeanor. These nuances allow the viewer to relate to the men as they experience a quiet moment at dawn, rather than just depicting an archetypal soldier. Moreover, the music motif of Sounding Reveille harks back to Home, Sweet Home, which was titled after a popular song for troops on both the Union and Confederate sides and thus has been said to convey an underlying message of unity. In Sounding Reveille, the focus on these young soldiers’ reality similarly inspires deep universal empathy as Homer looks back on the casualties of the Civil War era.
As pronounced by a contemporary critic, "Mr. Homer is the first of our artists...who has endeavored to tell us any truth about the war...What he has tried to tell us has been said simply, honestly, and with such homely truth as would have given his pictures a historical value quite apart from their artistic merit…he will never paint more real soldiers than these." (The New Path, 1863, as quoted in A. T. E. Gardner, Winslow Homer, American Artist: His World and His Work, New York, 1961, pp. 77-78) Indeed, in Sounding Reveille and his other important Civil War paintings, Homer elevates his subject well beyond reportage to provide one of the most profound records of the conflict produced by any artist of the period.
The original owner of the present work, Theodore Russell Davis, also worked as an illustrator-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly from 1861-64. Davis and Homer were friends, and it is likely Davis received Sounding Reveille as a gift from the artist.