The subject of this painting is a Union veteran of the civil war. He was a farmer before the war, and has returned to harvest his crop, picking up where he left off. In the front right corner, you can see where he has placed his coat and canteen. He is still wearing his Federal uniform pants, issue canton flannel shirt, and his weathered black slouch hat.
See how is back is turned away from the viewer. He has turned his back on war, and returned to farming. Still, he is reaping wheat with the same precision he reaped life on the battlefield. Homer points that out by using the old-style scythe, analogous with the “Grim Reaper” than the then-current mechanical scythe. Wheat falls to the ground in rows and bunches, the same as his enemies before the vollies of his and his comrade’s rifle-muskets.
When this painting was exhibited in 1865, after the close of the war, it caused a sensation. People of the time were quick to grasp the levels of meaning that Homer at put into this work, and understood completely what he was saying. Some of that meaning is lost on today’s Americans, because they are not familiar with the clothing of the period, nor the way agriculture was done so long ago. It is, by itself, a pleasant work to view. However, when you understand what Homer is saying, how Americans are as efficient at war as they are at peaceful pursuits, how we can quickly change from one form to another, then it is a great statement about the strength of our nation.
What other nation on earth could withstand 600,000 dead during 4 years of bitter civil war, the almost total destruction of 1/3 of the nation’s economy, the social transformation of ending human slavery, and a million displaced persons, yet still, almost literally, shake hands, walk away and go about rebuilding the country and getting on with life.
Something to ponder upon these days.