Suggested Answers to Discussion Questions for
Learning Guide to WINSLOW HOMER: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
1. [Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film]. [No suggested Answers.]
2. What was happening in the scenes in which Homer and Fee's father replayed Civil War battles in their heads? Suggested Response: These were flashbacks to traumatic events, symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). You might read to children Whitman's poem "The Artilleryman's Vision" which recounts a flashback.
3. Name two of the main symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Suggested Response: There are four chief symptoms of PTSD: nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and feeling detached or estranged.
4. At one point in the movie, Gabe dismisses Fee's anger at him saying, "She's just a squatter." He was making a mistake when he did this. Tell us what Gabe was really feeling and why it was a mistake. Suggested Response: Gabe was covering up his hurt that Fee was angry at him, refusing to acknowledge how much her anger hurt him and how much he cared about her. (Psychologists call this "denial.") But his subconscious mind had to do something with the emotions that he felt and so he lashed out at Fee by placing her in a category of people that he thought weren't deserving of respect. There are two problems with this attitude: Gabe was not being honest with himself and it is never right to assume that the members of a group of people are not worthy of respect because they belong to that group.
5. How did Gabe and his circumstances change during the course of the film? Suggested Response: At first, Gabe was looking for ways to get into trouble. His actions were caused by his low self-esteem and a desire to get attention. Later he gave his mother the sketch of his brother and confronted her about the fact that she was so caught up in grieving for his brother that she was ignoring him. Once she began to pay attention to Gabe again, his behavior improved.
6. Each of the children in the film abruptly changed the subject when they didn't want to answer one of Homer's questions. Can you identify these instances? What did this tell you about them? Suggested Response: When Homer asked Fee why she didn't go to school she suddenly offered to read his fortune from her Tarot cards. When Homer asked Gabe what his brother thought of the war, Gabe didn't answer but instead said that he'd better get home. Both of these scenes mean that these were areas in their life that these children couldn't or wouldn't face. If you watch carefully how your friends talk and watch long enough, you will see behavior like this.
7. The soldier is the focus of the picture. How is that effect achieved? Suggested Response: The foliage is out of focus and vague. The major branches of the tree take the eye toward the soldier. The body of the soldier points the eye toward his head and to his hand on the trigger.
8. While the picture is of a person who is not moving, it contains many dynamic features. What are they? Suggested Response: The soldier is concentrating, looking to the right. His body, from his left foot in the crook of the tree on up is tense (except for his right leg) and we know that a bullet will fly out of the gun. The flow of energy in the picture starts at the soldier's left foot (braced against the tree), flows up his body and around following his hand on the tree limb.
9. Why did Homer paint the hands and face of the soldier so that you can't identify him as a specific person? Suggested Response: To show that he could be any soldier.
10. Why did Homer chose the colors that he did in this picture? Suggested Response: The palette is generally dark browns and blues. They are contrasted with the vivid flesh colors of the soldier's hands and face. These give the image intensity.
11. After the war, Winslow Homer wrote to a friend that in 1862, near Yorktown, he had looked through the sights of a sharpshooter's gun and that it struck him "as being as near murder as anything I ever could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service." This picture conveys that feeling. How is that accomplished? Suggested Response: It shows the soldier as an impersonal killing machine.
12. What are the major structural components of this picture? Suggested Response: The are three major structural components. They are the mountains, the schoolhouse, and the line of boys. You might also note that the line of boys is, itself, in three parts: the boys at the right who anchor the chain, the four boys in the middle who are running to the left, and the two flying off the end of the chain.
13. What draws your attention to the boy at the center? Suggested Response: The fact that he is in the approximate center of the picture, the line of the mountains, the line made by the hands and arms of the anchoring boys, the line of the roof of the school, the fact that his shirt is white and is the center between two other white shirts.
14. Where is the flow of energy in this picture? Tell us whether it is balanced by flows in the other direction and describe the role of sunlight in the flow of energy in the picture. Suggested Response: The flow is to the left, obviously from the movement of the boys, echoed by the line of the larger mountain. This flow is balanced by the movement of the clouds to the right and the line of the smaller mountain. There is also a lot of energy flowing to the right that comes from the sunlight, as shown in the brightness of the shirts, the feet of the boys, the rocks, and the schoolhouse. The flow of the sunlight actually seems to be resisting the leftward movement of the boys.
15. Is this picture balanced? Suggested Response: Yes, and no. The balance of the picture echoes the subject matter, with mass at the right and movement to the left. This is exactly how snap the whip is played. There is another way to view the balance in this painting and that is that the strength of the sunlight, flowing from left to right, balances the shapes in the painting which otherwise would be unbalanced to the right.
16. Some critics have said that Prisoners from the Front is a pictorial synopsis of the entire Civil War. Can you tell us why they said this? Do you agree? Suggested Response: It shows the reactions of Southerners being forced to submit to the North and echoes the emotions of the two sides.
17. Trace the flow of energy in this picture. Suggested Response: The Southerners and the Union soldier are looking toward the Union officer, directing the flow of energy in his direction. He stands, like a rock, in a manner that easily withstands the force. The Union officer in turn directs his energy to the youngest Southern officer who returns it with unyielding resentment.
18. What are the expressions on the faces of each of the five main figures in the picture? Suggested Response: The Union officer is in command and wants to have an amicable relationship with his captives. He is non-plussed by the anger and hatred directed to him by the young Southern officer. The Union soldier guarding the prisoners is fierce and ready to go after any prisoner who gets out of line. He and the soldiers in the background represent the overwhelming strength of the Union armies. The younger Southern officer, an aristocrat, a young man of style, is still defiant but he knows that his world has changed forever. The old man is thoroughly beaten but wary. The country boy looks befuddled.
19. What is the significance of the background in this painting? Suggested Response: The foreground and intermediate background are full of tree stumps representing the devastation of war: the young men killed and the land wasted. The soldiers in the background complement the soldier guarding the prisoners and represent the great strength of the Union armies.
20. What does the treatment of light and dark tell you about this painting? Suggested Response: The treatment of light and dark show us that Homer was interested in communicating the emotions of the men. These are shown by the light (and therefore highlighted) parts, their faces and their hands.
1. Why did Homer desire to work alone? Suggested Response: He needed to be alone to concentrate fully on his work.
2. Was Homer's ability to draw and paint something that came to him naturally or did it take hard work? Suggested Response: Both.
See also the questions under "Responsibility" below.
3. What was wrong with the way in which Gabe's mother mourned for his older brother? Suggested Response: She allowed her grief over her older son's death to upset her so much that she could not love or nurture her remaining son.
4. Some people can go through a war and suffer few adverse consequences but a significance number of people will get Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and need treatment. If a person gets PTSD does it mean that he or she is weak? Suggested Response: No. Both the strong and the weak suffer from PTSD. People are strong in certain situations and weak in others. A person with a psychiatric condition such as PTSD needs understanding, caring, and treatment.
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)
1. Each of the child characters featured in this film had trouble telling the truth about themselves or their family. Did it adversely affect them? Suggested Response: Yes. They tried to establish relationships with a lie.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
2. Rate Winslow Homer in relation to the Responsibility Pillar of Character. Suggested Response: He worked hard all his life to paint his best. "Talent," Homer once scoffed to an admirer, "What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous hard work in the right way."
Last updated December 26, 2007.
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