On Guard

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On Guard
Winslow Homer
Oil on canvas
12 1/4 x 9 1/4 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

In this small oil painting, a young boy sits on a fence and gazes into the distance. Look at his posture. Although he could be either in the North or the South, he is watching intently and, as the title tells us, guarding something. The log fence resembles those on the farms that had become battlefields in the Civil War, but instead of a rifle, he holds a stick. The only “enemy” that the boy will likely encounter in this calm and unthreatening field is the flock of birds flying over the crops. But they may have been stirred by the advance of enemy troops. Perhaps the boy himself is in the employ of Union or Confederate troops. Although many boys did serve in the military, this boy, like so many others, may also be far from the battles, simply fulfilling the responsibilities of male relatives who were absent or had died due to their military service.

Artist Winslow Homer was one of many magazine sketch artists responsible for helping Americans picture what actually took place during the Civil War. But Homer also became well known for more formal paintings like this of country children. In this portrait, Homer shows us through adult eyes a vision of how the war affected the lives of children. Perhaps because of the horrible war, his audience longed for the innocence of children who represent the future. 

1. What do you think the boy is waiting or watching out for?  Do you think his play is mixed with seriousness?

2. How does the fact that you can’t quite read the boys face influence the way this painting makes you feel?

3. Do the birds in the painting make the boy look more or less alone? Why do you think Homer chose to include them, and what might they represent?  

Further reading:

Newberry Library. "On Guard." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. http://publications.newberry.org/digitalexhibitions/exhibits/show/homefront/women/womenguard.

Terra Foundation for American Art. “Winslow Homer – On Guard.”  Terra Foundation for American Art. http://collections.terraamericanart.org/view/objects/asitem/Objects$0040539/0?t:state:flow=e4d463a1-1182-4ae9-a19c-3fdb0893ae2b.

©Terra Foundation for American Art