Artist: Winslow Homer

Place/date of birth: Boston, Massachusetts 1836

Place/date of death: Prout's Neck, Maine 1910

Title: The Bright Side

Date of completion: 1865

Materials: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 12 3/4 x 17 inches

Signed, dated, and inscribed lower left: Winslow Homer NY 65

Collection: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd

Accession number: 1979.7.56




During the Civil War, Winslow Homer worked as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly, the foremost nationally-circulated magazine of the period. At this time photographs could not be reproduced in newspapers and magazines so the illustrations that accompanied stories provided the only visual means to present information. The drawings Homer made as a war correspondent became the basis of his first oil paintings, made shortly after the end of the war. The Bright Side is one of these early paintings.


Rather than depicting scenes of men fighting, Homer was interested in scenes of everyday life around camp. This painting shows a Union army campsite with supply wagons, mules, and a cluster of tents in the background. The artist focuses on the five mule drivers whose job it was to transport most of the army supplies. One of the ironies of the Civil War was that even as the Union waged war on behalf of slaves, it did not generally allow freed slaves or free black people to hold combat jobs in the army. The title The Bright Side may refer to the fact that the muleteers (or teamsters) sit on the bright side of the tent or that the muleteers represent the bright side of army life -- as noncombatants during the time of carnage at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Cold Harbor.

Looking Closely

Historians today disagree as to the interpretation of this scene. This painting depicts African-American men enjoying a moment's rest in a war that was harsh and grueling. Each man is represented as an individual; the apparent well-being expressed in their clothes, in their relaxed poses, and the sunshine that bathes them may have been intended as a direct contrast to the abject poverty of black slaves in the South. However, some historians feel that the artist intentionally demeaned the men and made them appear lazy by creating an indirect comparison with the mules.


Strong horizontal lines provide balance and stability and add to the sense of ease and tranquility in this painting. Historians know that Homer made many drawings and sketches of this subject over a period of time; he tried several compositions before settling on this one. A feeling of repose is created in part by the continuous sweeping arch made between the teamsters and the tent.


Winslow Homer began his artistic career at the age of nineteen as an apprentice to a Boston lithographer. He began selling illustrations to newspapers in 1857 and by 1859 was employed by Harper's Weekly. Although largely self-taught, Homer's oil paintings were critically and commercially successful from the start. After a trip to Paris in 1866, he returned to New York with a lighter palate and a generally more decorative approach to genre subjects. Children and vacationing adults would be the subjects of his paintings for the next decade. In 1881 Homer again traveled abroad, this time to England where he stayed for a year and a half. Homer's later work often portrays dramatic scenes at sea and is invested with a somber heroism and seriousness.

Links to American History Curriculum

  • Chapter 18, Lesson 4: Civil War and Freedom

  • Chapter 18: "Exploring," Early Photography

Introduction | One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Slide List | Museum Visit