LEARNING GUIDE TO:
WINSLOW HOMER: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
SUBJECTS — U.S./1861 - 1913; Visual Arts; Medicine;
Age: 8-12; No MPAA Rating; 49 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: Winslow Homer (1836 - 1910) needed peace and quiet to concentrate on his painting. In the summer of 1878, friends were planning to be away from a farm that they owned in upstate New York. They offered Homer the use of the farm so that he could have the solitude he craved. This film tells the story of two fictional children who at first interrupt that solitude, but later pose for Homer and become his friends. This made for TV film is one of the award-winning "Artists' Specials."
Benefits of the Movie: "Winslow Homer, An American Original" introduces children to an artist who captured the spirit of the United States as it existed in the last half of the nineteenth century. It also deals with the effects of the Civil War on soldiers who survived and on the families of the soldiers who did not.
Possible Problems: MINOR. There is a single word of profanity by one of the children, protested vigorously by Mr. Homer. The boy uses a sling shot to shoot Mr. Homer in the derriere once and a sheep in its udder once.
Parenting Points: Show your child the paintings in this Learning Guide. Ask and answer the Discussion Questions 7 - 20 that analyze three of the paintings.
If your child is interested, go over the points in the Helpful Background section and the other Discussion Questions.
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Featured Actors: Wayne Best, Tamara Hope, and Ryan DeBoer.
Director: Graeme Lynch.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION: Rate Winslow Homer in relation to the Responsibility Pillar of Character.
Suggested Response: He rates very highly because he was conscientious about his work and did the best that he could with the talent that he had. It turned out that this was a tremendous amount.
Winslow Homer was an artist with a distinctive eye who was able to capture the mood of many different environments, including rural America, the seaside, the Caribbean, the Civil War, and black Americans after the Civil War.
The works reproduced in this Learning Guide show Homer's versatility as an artist in water color, pencil, and oil. The "Scene at Houghton Farm," showing two of Homer's models during the summer of 1878 obviously served as an inspiration for the makers of this film.
When the Civil War broke out, Homer was only 23 and had yet to produce his first painting. However, he was already an accomplished commercial illustrator and Harper's Magazine, the country's most popular weekly magazine at the time, sent Homer to the front to sketch the war. His sketches were turned into lithographs that served as illustrations for the magazine. Homer's sketches of the war proved immensely popular and also served as a library of materials to work from when he left the front.
Homer's Yankee Sharpshooter shows how war makes man into a killing machine. In the Civil War, sharpshooters were employed to shoot soldiers from the opposing side between battles. Their purpose was to keep the opposing troops from resting and to reduce morale. Many years after the war and after he had painted this picture, Homer wrote to a friend that in 1862 he had looked through the sights of a sharpshooter's gun near Yorktown 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." Winslow Homer to George C. Briggs, Feb. 19, 1896, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Quoted in Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation, at page 35. (The Discussion Questions will help explore this painting.)
Most of Homer's Civil War paintings focused, not on the battles, but on the war experienced by the common soldier. The title of the picture below refers to the favorite song of both armies during the war, "Home Sweet Home." The regimental band plays in the background and the soldiers in the foreground are shown in reverie, thinking no doubt of their families and friends. Many eye-witnesses told moving accounts of how, when the encampments of the opposing sides were close to each other, one side would begin the song and it would be picked up and repeated by the other side.
Toward the end of his life, Winslow Homer was asked by a friend, "Do you ever take the liberty, in painting nature, of modifying the color of any part?" Homer appeared startled by the question and answered, "Never! Never! ... When I have selected the thing carefully, I paint it exactly as it appears. Of course you must not paint everything you see. ... You must wait, and wait patiently, until the exceptional, the wonderful effect, or aspect comes. Then, if you have sense enough to see it -- well, that's all there is to that." His friend then asked. "Do you never paint away from the scene?" "Never! Of course I go over them in the studio and put them in shape." Homer once waited years for a sunset that was appropriate for a picture that remained unfinished in his studio, going out almost every day to watch the setting sun to find the special effect he needed. Quotation from: Winslow Homer, A Portrait by Jean Gould, 1962, page 283.
During the summer of 1878, Homer found that Houghton's farm was ideal for his goal of painting from nature. He noticed a young shepherdess in her early teens who was the daughter of a poor mountaineer in the neighborhood. He arranged to have the girl pose as a model as she looked after the sheep.
Homer went to Virginia in 1876 and painted the lives of black Americans living there. The result was a number of exceptional paintings which, again, capture poignant moments in American life. A Visit from the Old Mistress shows a white woman making a call at the home of her former slaves. Their dwelling is a shack and their clothing shabby, but they own the space. Their former mistress recognizes this. She is tentative and doesn't know how she'll be received. One of her former servants sits as she enters. The body language of the two standing black women show that they are no longer subservient and one looks downright hostile. Years of slavery didn't foster loyalty, respect, or affection for their former mistress.
Prisoners from the Front, 1866, is Homer's most important Civil War painting. The exhibition of this work established Homer as a major American painter. The painting depicts the capture of Confederate soldiers by Brigadier General Francis Channing Barlow (1834-1896) on June 21, 1864. The background shows the battlefield at Petersburg, Virginia. The picture captures much of the relationship between Northern and Southern soldiers during the civil war. The Northern officer is resolute, in control yet somewhat baffled by the hostility of the Southern officer facing him. He seems to want to heal the rift between them. The Union soldier guarding the prisoners is fierce and ready to pounce if they make a wrong move. He is the means by which the Union officer maintains control. The foreground and intermediate background are full of tree stumps representing the devastation of war, the young men killed, the land wasted. The three prisoners are types of Southern soldiers. The young officer is defiant, yet he knows that his life and his world have changed forever. He doesn't like it. He has style and would be dashing except for the torn buttons of his uniform. (Compare this figure to the photograph of Confederate prisoners at Gettysburg, shown on the Learning Guide to Gettysburg.) The old man is resigned but wary. The youngest prisoner is befuddled and seems not to understand his situation. He may seem a country bumpkin but the four bullet holes in his hat are reminiscent of the foolhardy bravado of the rebel soldier in Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg.
The filmmakers studied the life of Winslow Homer and incorporated many facts about his life into the film. He visited Houghton Farm and used two children as models while he was there. During his life, especially when he became older, Homer was plagued by curious people interrupting his solitude. He fitted out his porch with uncomfortable chairs so that people who came to call would not stay long! Homer kept a slingshot with his collection of hunting rifles.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
In this film, both Fiona's father and Homer are portrayed as suffering from PTSD. Homer's case is mild, characterized by short flashbacks that he can manage. Fee's father, on the other hand, is completely debilitated by the disease. PTSD is one of the few recognized psychiatric conditions whose cause is an external situation.
The National Center for PTSD, a program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs describes Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as ...
... [A] psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.Two Poems Referred to in the Movie
"The Artilleryman's Vision"
by Walt Whitman
While my wife at my side lies slumbering, and the wars are over long,
The first three verses of "The Barefoot Boy"
by John Greenleaf Whittier
Blessings on thee, little man,
BUILDING VOCABULARY: "Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome," "sleep like a log," malarky, "to plague someone," "unsettled disposition," "in a pig's eye" "nose up so high it got stuck in the clouds."
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1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
2. What was happening in the scenes in which Homer and Fee's father replayed Civil War battles in their heads?
3. Name two of the main symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome.
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.
5. How did Gabe and his circumstances change during the course of the film?
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?
Questions Relating to Specific Paintings
7. The soldier is the focus of the picture. How is that effect achieved?
8. While the picture is of a person who is not moving, it contains many dynamic features. What are they?
9. Why did Homer paint the hands and face of the soldier so that you can't identify him as a specific person?
10. Why did Homer chose the colors that he did in this picture?
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?
12. What are the major structural components of this picture?
13. What draws your attention to the boy at the center?
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.
15. Is this picture balanced?
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?
17. Trace the flow of energy in this picture.
18. What are the expressions on the faces of each of the five main figures in the picture?
19. What is the significance of the background in this painting?
20. What does the treatment of light and dark tell you about this painting?
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MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: See films on Degas, Goya, Rembrandt, Monet, and Mary Cassatt by the producers of this film at Devine Entertainment Films on TeachWithMovies.com. See also, all films listed in the Visual Arts section of the Subject Matter Index. For films about the Civil War, see the U. S. History section of the Subject Matter Index.
Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:
1. Why did Homer desire to work alone?
2. Was Homer's ability to draw and paint something that came to him naturally or did it take hard work?
3. What was wrong with the way in which Gabe's mother mourned for his older brother?
4. Some people can go through a war and suffer few adverse consequences but a significant number of people will get PTSD and need treatment. If a person gets PTSD does it mean that he or she is weak?
For suggested answers: click here.
Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
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?
(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.
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
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Bridges to Reading: Jonkonnu by Amy Littlesugar and Ian Schoenherr, is excellent for beginning readers or to be read to children six to eight. It tells a story of a fictional girl who met Homer on his trip to Virginia and his famous confrontation of the front porch of the boarding house with a White Southerner, irate that a Yankee would come to his town and paint only the blacks. The World of Winslow Homer, 1836-1910 by James Thomas Flexner, 1966, provides a sampling of Homer's different styles.
The Civil War: Battle Fields and Campgrounds in the Art of Winslow Homer by Julian Grossman, 1991, displays the known works of Homer relating to the Civil War and comments on many of the paintings and sketches. It also provides background on the Civil War and is an excellent way to introduce art to a Civil War enthusiast.
Let's Get Lost in a Painting, Winslow Homer -- The Gulf Stream by Ernest Goldstein, 1982 leads the reader through an excellent analysis of the painting The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer. This book is perfect for young art students. Consisting of only 40 pages in large type and spiced with illustrations, the book makes excellent reading for a trip or just at home. The book is good to read to children, young and old.
OTHER LESSON PLANS:
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Assignments, Projects and Activities: Assignments, Projects and Activities for Use With Any Film that is a Work of Fiction
PHOTOGRAPHS, DIAGRAMS AND OTHER VISUALS:
Bibliography: In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
Last updated December 10, 2009.
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