Clarity on Homer’s Brush Harrow

By Anne Schaffer
September 20, 2019
An oil painting of a boy atop a horse pulling a harrow made of short branches with another young boy sitting atop the harrow.
1939.229 Winslow Homer, The Brush Harrow, 1865. Oil on canvas. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous gift, 1939.229.

If you glance quickly at Winslow Homer’s The Brush Harrow, you might not be able to tell that the subject relates to the Civil War. Depicting two children preparing a field using a harrow made of tree branches, the 1865 painting only hints at the aftermath of the war: children are doing the work of men, who perhaps have not returned home. But there’s another key detail that makes the connection clearer. The only problem is, it hasn’t been visible for decades.

As part of my fellowship in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and in preparation for the exhibition Winslow Homer: Eyewitness, I conducted treatment and technical study of this painting (as well as of Pitching Quoits, Homer’s other Civil War painting in the collections). I wanted to learn more about the artist’s materials, early technique, and approach to his practice. By cleaning The Brush Harrow, I also hoped to improve our ability to view the composition—and uncover that element within the painting that could more directly link its subject to the war.

Background

When the painting was shown at New York’s National Academy of Design in 1866, it was said to contain the letters “US” on the horse, a brand indicating a Union army association. This detail was noted in a review from the 19th-century New York Leader, which commented that, “The horse is used up, or was never meant to be used, although marked U.S.”

However, by the 20th century, all traces of the brand had disappeared. It was not visible when The Brush Harrow entered the Fogg Museum’s collection in 1939, and attempts to locate it since then using advanced infrared and X-ray imaging techniques were unsuccessful. Thus, catalogue entries and wall texts describing the painting have often tried to explain the brand’s visual absence, noting correctly that various factors of the painting’s aging process may have reduced its visibility.

The foreground of The Brush Harrow is dark and subtle in contrast to the relatively brilliant opacity of the sky, in part because of how Homer painted it and in part due to its condition. Polyvinyl acetate varnish applied by conservators 52 years ago had discolored to a dull gray-brown and lost some of its saturation, which reduced contrast and changed the way we see the painting. We hoped that varnish removal would restore depth to the painting’s foreground, in the meantime helping us identify the brand on the horse or allowing us to finally give up the search.

The Treatment Process

Before treatment began, I closely examined the painting and photographed it in various lighting conditions, including ultraviolet and infrared. Together with conservation scientists in the Straus Center, I used X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), a non-destructive analytical technique, to identify the pigments that Homer used.

Next, I removed surface dirt and grime. The thin layer of surface dirt was an orange-brown color; removing the surface grime improved the surface sheen of the painting and brightened the sky.

A closer look of a tree and bird in the background with the left side of the image a darker shade (prior to surface cleaning) than the lighter right side (after surface cleaning).
A detail of the painting before surface cleaning (left half) and after (right half).

Following extensive testing to ensure the safety of the painting, I removed the polyvinyl acetate varnish applied in 1966.

Schaffer uses a swab and solution to remove the varnish from the painting on the backside of the horse.
Anne Schaffer uses a hand-rolled cotton swab and a tailored solvent solution to carefully remove varnish from the painting.

During this process, the brand finally emerged. Its appearance is subtle; the letters were painted in a thin, greenish-gray paint that had been dragged dryly over the orange-browns of the horse’s hind leg. In fact, the brand is so subtle that I nearly missed it. It was likely never very bright but would have been strong enough for 19th-century viewers to observe.

A closer view of the horse's hind leg reveals the letters "US" in this image, which has been altered to black and white to highlight the brand.
A closer view of the horse’s hind leg reveals the letters “US,” as seen in this image that has been manipulated to highlight the brand.
View of the original painting with a yellow box around the horse's hind leg where the brand is.
The yellow box indicates the location of the brand.

As a final step, I addressed small areas of loss due to old abrasions through in-painting, and revarnished the canvas with a stable, acrylic resin. 

Out into the Light

We don't know the exact reason for the brand’s disappearance, but we do know that as the painting aged, our ability to see the brand was gradually reduced until it seemed lost completely. Even now, after treatment, the brand is most clearly visible in bright light and will not be perceived by most viewers in the gallery without assistance. (See the slider below for a comparison of its appearance before treatment, left, and afterward.)

While the painting may look practically the same to many, it has a completely different meaning for me. Finding the brand is an important and exciting moment, as it confirms a narrative about the painting that gives it depth and context. It proves that The Brush Harrow is much more than simply a lovely scene—it is a painting with a pointed and poignant perspective on the Civil War.

 

Anne Schaffer is a paintings conservation fellow in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums.

View of the original painting that can be slid to reveal the painting's condition before and after the varnish removal.