This 1863 picture by Winslow Homer, thought to be his earliest completed effort in oil paints, marks a turning point in modern warfare. For all its plain-spoken simplicity, it is one of the most morally anguished, ominously charged paintings I know.
Homer painted “Sharpshooter” after spending two months in the spring of 1862 at Yorktown, Va., during the Civil War. He was producing illustrations for Harper’s Weekly and had obtained permission to mingle in camp with Union soldiers during the month-long siege there. Homer never fired a shot during the war. But an account he gave to a friend more than three decades later helps us understand why he wanted to depict this subject.
Homer had impeccable journalistic impulses, and part of his motivation was that snipers, or sharpshooters, were a new phenomenon in warfare, made possible by telescopic sights and modern rifle technology.
During his time at Yorktown, Homer was attached to the regiment of his friend, Francis Channing Barlow. The regiment included a contingent of sharpshooters under the command of Hiram Berdan. The Berdan Sharpshooters, as they were known, had been the subject of an article in Harper’s Weekly earlier in 1862, and the report effectively conveyed why they were both respected and feared. From a distance of 600 feet, the article explained, the sharpshooters had to be good enough to fire 10 consecutive shots hitting an average of no more than five inches from the bull’s eye.
Homer was a great narrative artist, acutely attuned to the connection between vision and consequence. To depict something, for him, was not just to provide an opportunity for visual contemplation. It was also to embed the thing depicted in a story line and to possess, in a sense, actionable intelligence. Which is a good term to describe what you’re getting when you look through the sights of a rifle.
“I looked through one of their rifles once when they were in a peach orchard in front of Yorktown in April, 1862,” Homer wrote to his friend George Briggs, in 1896. In the same letter, to show what he had seen, he drew a little sketch of a man as seen through the crosshairs of a telescope. The man stood looking out over a crenelated wall with his back to the implied rifle.
“The above impression,” wrote Homer, “struck me as being as near to murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service.”
The days of hand-to-hand combat in war are long gone. Many people killed by the military don’t get to see their killers or even the hardware that does the killing. There may be something merciful about that: It might remove a certain brief and specific horror from a victim’s last moments. But by taking from people a sense of agency in their own defense, or even just the ability to meet death with open eyes, it also removes — from both victim and perpetrator — the (possibly quaint and irrelevant) notion of honor. Moreover, it suffuses life in war zones with permanent dread.
Homer’s marksman is camouflaged in his tree. The painter’s light touch conveys the soft optical fuzz of the pine needles, a contrast with the rough, hard bark of the trunk and branches. Just as the touch of bright red on the sharpshooter’s blue cap can’t help but remind modern audiences of a gun’s red laser sight, the work itself has the look (another anachronism) of a photograph taken by a camera with a zoom: Indeterminate viewpoint. Subject caught unawares. Decisive moment.
Look how precariously balanced the sharpshooter is. Imagine now the slightly elevated rate of his beating heart, the steady air pouring in and out of his lungs as he rides the wave of anxiety in his gut. See how his left arm braces itself against a branch, expecting recoil.