Minstrel Banjo

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Winslow Homer 1864 Painting, Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg, Virginia_at Detroit Institute of Arts

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Comment by Bob Winans on February 15, 2013 at 2:30pm

I just stumbled on a painting by Winslow Homer ("Defiance: Inviting a Shot
Before Petersburg, Virginia," 1864, at the Detroit Institute of Arts) that I had
never seen before. I have uploaded into the Photo section an image of the full painting (12" X 18"), plus a detail of the lower right quarter of the painting and another focusing just on the black banjo player. Homer, who did quite a few Civil War battlefield paintings, shows the banjo with what looks like a tension hoop (meaning it was a frame rather than a gourd banjo) and only three strings (for what that's worth). It is interesting that the banjo player's eyes are the only ones clearly portrayed in the painting, and that he is the only one paying direct attention to the show-off at the center of the painting (about whom he is probably saying to himself, "What a damn fool!").

Comment by Ian Bell on February 15, 2013 at 6:28pm
What a great find! Winslow Homer was a master at packing a whole short film into a painting!
It's probably a reasonable impression of someone dancing a jig. (at least the sort of jig one might dance on the top of an earthwork)
Comment by Bob Winans on February 15, 2013 at 8:56pm

Excellent suggestion, Ian. I had not thought about Homer intending the the central figure to be dancing a jig as an important element of his "defiance," but that would certainly make sense. And would also explain why the musician is keeping an eye on the dancer.

Comment by Al Smitley on February 16, 2013 at 7:47am

I must've seen that painting 100 times and never noticed (or more likely, forgot) about the banjo player.  I looked in the American Heritage Picture History of The CIvil War, narrative by Bruce Catton and the reproduction is so poor/dark that it is no wonder.  But........I confess that I, too, have seen it at the DIA and still did not recall it.  Thanks for pointing it out.  Now, it's fixed in my mind....I think.

Comment by Strumelia on February 16, 2013 at 11:50am

Almost seems like a roughed out study or underpainting that didn't quite get completed. It's rougher than most Homers.

I find it very odd how everyone looks relatively normal except the banjo player, who looks like a bizarre cartoon 'picaninny' character.  So, I'm thinking the painting is depicting a white soldier done up in comic blackface getup to entertain the troops, rather than depicting an actual black player.

Comment by Strumelia on February 16, 2013 at 7:13pm

Maybe the guy standing on the berm is a scout, and dressed in buckskin?  He seems to be wearing a (plaid?) sash, and maybe knee socks or tall riding boots.  Is that a sun flap down the back of his hat?

The banjo player's hair looks like a knobbly grey wool wig.  An old black confederate soldier playing the banjo?- what are the chances?  Could he have been a prisoner of war?

Comment by Ed Womack on February 16, 2013 at 7:48pm

In "Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation" by Elizabeth Johns, this passage appears: "...yet Homer had not finished examining the horrors of war. Sometime in 1864 he again registered its terrible impact. 'Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg,' a small image he painted in the gray greens and blues of predawn, conveys war's capacity to push soldiers over the edge. Here a soldier in extreme agony has leapt up onto the rampart to invite death. Puffs of enemy fire in the distance suggest that his invitation has been accepted. Tree stumps, metaphors for human life cut off, litter the battlefield. In contrast to the soldier's loss of control, a guard stands matter-of-factly in the foreground, and the stereotypical grinning black banjo player just below the rampart establishes the barricade - and the soldiers - as Confederates. Outlining the desperate young man against the sky, alone in his anguish, Homer used dramatic dark browns and greenish blues to create a harsh, even brutal, image. ...Homer withheld this picture from exhibition.... Had he painted it primarily to probe his own reactions to what he was seeing? Or did he judge its mood... too unsettling for viewers?"

That's the only thing I could find out about this painting from a cursory internet search. It seems the scholars (or at least this one) have as many questions as everyone else.

Comment by Strumelia on February 16, 2013 at 8:20pm
Comment by Bob Winans on February 17, 2013 at 11:52am

Thank you all for the various ideas put forward and the research into secondary sources. Here is what my source for the painting says: "A soldier starkly silhouetted against a broad sweep of sky, courageously invites his own doom. Not readily identifiable as Union or Confederate, he symbolizes Everyman amid the collective madness of the conflict" (Doranne Jacobson, The Civil War in Art (NY: Smithmark, 1996), p.70). So the sources are not going to solve the Confederate/Union issue.

Many people in this group have more knowledge of Civil War uniforms than I do, so let me pose a question. What about the hats they are wearing (they look somewhat distinctive)? To get a better look at these, click on "View Full Size" on the image above and then, holding down the control key, hit your + key several times to enlarge the image to see the hat on the central guy. Do the same thing with the image of the bottom right-hand corner to see other hats. Do these tell us anything?

Regarding the banjo player, start by going through the same process, enlarging and focusing on his head. My opinion is that he is not a soldier in blackface: Homer has given him a large "African American" nose, and pink lips (rather than white, which would have been more common for minstrel makeup). The top of his head (enlargement is important here) is open to interpretation. Strumelia says that it looks like "a knobbly grey wool wig"; possibly, but it could just as easily be a representation of the man's real grey hair. Before enlarging this image, I thought he might be wearing a cap (the grey part) with a brim (the black part directly over his eyes). I no longer think that, but I do not know what to make of the black part, which seems to project out beyond his head and to have a kind of "scalloped" front edge.  Any ideas?

I have to disagree with one thing that Johns said (in the passage quoted by Ed): the presence of a black banjo player (an identity not questioned) does not guarantee that this group is Confederate.

And, finally, if the banjo player is Homer's representation of a black person, what does that say about his attitude toward African Americans (and I know nothing about whatever that attitude might be).

Comment by Ed Womack on February 17, 2013 at 12:36pm

I completely agree that the presence of a black banjo player has nothing to do with the group being Union or Confederate. That seems like a rather hasty judgement based on the assumption that the banjo player is a blackface minstrel, which may or may not be the case. And even if true, it wouldn't really help determine the side the soldier is on.

Not that this settles the matter in any way, but the National Park Service's site on the Siege of Petersburg, which also includes an image of the painting, considers the solider a Confederate, with subtext stating "A CONFEDERATE SOLDIER DARES THE FEDERAL SHARPSHOOTERS": http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/civil_war_series/20.... The site doesn't include any supporting details as to why.


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