A Review of Near Andersonville

In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the excellent exhibition The Civil War and American Art, I’m reposting my review of Peter Wood’s Near Andersonville. This review’s first appearance was in the March/April 2011 Art New England

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“Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of the earth has the capacity and passion for pictures,” reads the epigraph of Peter H. Wood’s book, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War. From Frederick Douglass’s “Pictures,” circa late 1864, these words are apt for the mysterious, moving story of a painting and its maker. Winslow Homer (1836-1910), one of the most revered and honored nineteenth-century American painters, authored the small, perceptive painting eventually recognized as Near Andersonville (1865-1866); the painting depicts a pensive slave woman at the threshold of a muddied shelter, obscuring the marching prisoners of war behind her. With her arms akimbo, the woman is painted with an affecting sensitivity uncommon in nineteenth-century portrayals of slave life. Perhaps it is unsurprising that such a painting ended up forgotten in a New Jersey attic for almost a century. Douglass’s straightforward words are apposite for the story of this neglected masterpiece, for if man is the only picture making being, his species is the only that collects pictures. In Near Andersonville, Wood engrossingly elucidates Homer’s motivations for making such an iconoclastic painting, and its first owner’s unexplained magnetism toward such a work. 

Wood starts the story of Near Andersonville in the 1960s in New Jersey, just outside of Newark in the affluent home of a recently deceased banker. Horace Kellogg Corbin dies in 1960, leaving the contents of his house to his children and grandchildren. Eager to organize and dispense with their father’s belongings, Kellogg’s children look to sell everything within the attic to a local junk shopkeeper. Something seems suspicious when the shopkeeper presses the family to get the job done, however. On a hunch, the Corbins inspect the family attic further, discovering the hidden treasure: a Homer painting. Eventually a Corbin family friend identifies the picture as not just any Homer, but a Civil War Homer. But there were no buyers for the paintings in 1960s America, and the Corbins decided to gift the painting to the Newark Museum with the title Captured Liberators. This demur name marginalized the painting’s true subject, and speaks to the country’s inability to process such a difficult, fraught image during the Civil Rights Era. Wood navigates the nuanced context of finding such a painting by a hero of the American canon with a refined, dramatic flourish, explaining the continued obscurity around Near Andersonville  as it came out of the Corbin attic and into a public museum.

The Newark Museum kept rough provenance records which helped in eventually identifying Near Andersonville’s true title, as well as its original owner. With a scholar’s curiosity, Wood traces the Corbin family tree back to Elijah Kellogg, a respected figure in nineteenth-century Elizabeth, New Jersey. One of Elijah’s daughters, Sarah Louisa, died young and unexpectedly in 1866, but not before she committed her life’s work to the education and betterment of “freedmen,” or ex-slaves. Just before her death, Sarah Kellogg was in Port Royal, South Carolina, where Union forces had freed masses of slaves at the War’s start. Miss Kellogg was among the progressive teachers who eagerly made their way to Port Royal and the St. Helena, South Carolina area in order to educate the newly free slaves.  Port Royal is just where Homer’s brother Arthur spent time throughout the war while stationed as a crewmember aboard the USS Kingfisher—a boat that the Port Royal teachers were well acquainted with. Is it possible that Sarah met Arthur while they were both in South Carolina, which spurred her to purchase his brother’s painting? Perhaps. At any rate, Sarah Kellogg was so drawn to Near Andersonville to collect it around 1866, soon after its creation. 

Like his brother, Winslow Homer went south for the war, but as a correspondent for Harper’s. The Homers hailed from abolitionist Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Wood supposes that as a sensitive, precocious boy Homer would have recognized and absorbed the era’s racial tensions. Wood parallels Homer’s early career developments with the anxieties of the day, explicating the painter’s cutting talent for burying a meaning within an arresting image. Most poignant is Wood’s understanding of the palpable empathy Homer exhibits for the woman in Near Andersonville, a compassion for the underdog that pervades Homer’s Civil War oeuvre. Wood looks to works such as The Bright Side and Defiance: Inviting a Shot before Petersburg, Virginia to illuminate Homer’s Civil War experience.  Writes Wood, “…much of Homer’s moral and political growth in wartime, like Lincoln’s, centered upon his expanding consciousness of the grim plight and potential liberation of enslaved black Americans….Both men ended up not too far from where Frederick Douglass had started out—just as most white Americans in our own era have eventually drawn closer to where Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders in the civil rights movement began.” 

In Near Andersonville, Wood tells the captivating story of an abandoned painting with the meticulousness of a historian and the panache of a novelist. More than just an enigmatic painting, Near Andersonville is a testament to the passions of abolitionists, and the halting confusion of the slaves that Lincoln freed. This short book is a quick, learned and touching read.

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