Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The Call to Family Dinner
The Dinner Horn by Winslow Homer, 1870.
A very kind friend gave me a postcard portfolio of paintings by Winslow Homer with a request for discussion of this painting and one other on my blog, and so...
Here we see in The Dinner Horn a young woman calling to her father, brothers, husband, or sons to the family dinner table. In rural America in the 19th century, dinner was the largest meal of the day and usually featured meat, but it was eaten in the middle of the day, between 1 and 2 p.m. That's why there is no hint of dusk in the painting but only full sun. The sound of the horn is most welcome to her men folk, since it means that it is time to lay aside the plough, the scythe, or the hoe and come to back to the house for a good full meal, before trekking out again to the fields to finish the day's work at sundown.
The Veteran in a New Field, 1865.
But there is more to this story, I think. The Dinner Horn, painted in 1870, could be a partner to The Veteran in a New Field, painted in 1865. Here in the field is the veteran, his back turned to us, his identity undetermined--he is the unknown soldier. He wields the scythe to bring in his harvest of wheat. The grim reaper is transformed by the war's end into the Cincinnatus back in his fields, reaping his own harvest of hard-earned wheat, the soldier turned farmer, the killer turned man of peace, the sword turn to ploughshares.
The erect posture of the lady in The Dinner Horn also recalls the military posture of the reveille bugle blower. This is no lackadaisical toot, but a strong blowing of the horn; with her bearing erect, her left arm on her hip, she issues a no-nonsense summons. A different version of this painting even has a tripod bearing an iron kettle over a fire to the lady's right, as if she were in an Army camp. But she calls her men not to arms but to dinner--to eat of the bounty that they have sown. And by giving her this heroic pose, despite the prosaic message of her blowing, Homer celebrates the call to dinner--the family board of good cooked food, nourishment, refeshment, and conviviality--and the relief that the grim, family-bereft days of war are over.