The young boy in Winslow Homer’s On Guard watches over the home front in his father’s absence. Sitting atop a fence and holding a makeshift flag, he appears apprehensive. Nothing has happened yet, but there is a sense of potential threat, signaled by the startled birds rising from the trees across the partly harvested field. The war, which Homer had seen firsthand as an artist-reporter for Harper’s Weekly, powerfully affected his work and never left his memory. Thus, the note of gravity in On Guard is there by design: the boy mimics and mirrors the far-off soldier standing guard against a threat infinitely more present and real. No pastoral idyll, the painting is a sober meditation on the interconnectedness of battlefront and home front.
Three years after war ended, Winslow Homer used On Guard as a template for his illustration in the children’s magazine Our Young Folks. Whereas On Guard portrays the boy soldier on the home front, “Watching the Crows” restores him to carefree youth. Now without that red flag of warning, he inhabits a peaceable landscape, without any sign that a war has taken place.