Most everyone has fond memories of partaking in childhood activities, from reading beloved books to playing outside with friends.

Winslow Homer focuses on the latter in one of his most celebrated paintings, “Snap The Whip,” which depicts a group of boys playing a game by the same name – a game that to this day remains a favorite during elementary school recesses across the country. 

The boys, who are running hand-in-hand in a lush open field in front of a red schoolhouse, are the embodiment of innocence. Not only was such an idealistic depiction welcomed by post-Civil War Americans, it continues to resonate today thanks to the simplicity it portrays and nostalgia it invokes. 

“Snap The Whip” is a highlight of the main collection of The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown. Louis A. Zona, the museum’s executive director and chief curator, shared his thoughts about the
19th century piece.

Canvas: What makes this piece noteworthy? What stands out to you, and what should viewers note when they see it at the museum?

Zona: The painting was painted by Winslow Homer in 1872. He is considered by most historians as America’s greatest 19th century painter, and “Snap The Whip” is considered to be his greatest work.

What response or emotions does this piece invoke?

Zona: Homer was to painting what Mark Twain was to literature. It shows what life was like in America after the Civil War. Homer has captured the wonders of youth at a special moment in time. 

What’s noteworthy about the materials the artist used or process he employed for this piece?

Zona: Homer was a master painter. He utilized traditional material – oil on linen canvas and organic varnish.

How does this piece fit into the artist’s larger body of work? Where was he in his career when this piece was created?

Zona: Homer was born in 1836 and died in 1910. “Snap The Whip” was painted by him at mid-career in 1872. He was much celebrated in his lifetime as America’s greatest artist throughout his career and after.

What was happening in the art world – or the world in general – at the time that might’ve influenced this piece?

Zona: America had just lived through a horrible Civil War. “Snap The Whip” is what post-war serenity looked like. Even during the war, Homer presented a picture of what was happening on the home front while the war raged on.

Along those lines, how might this piece have influenced or inspired other artists after they saw it?

Zona: Homer was considered to be America’s premier painter in his lifetime. Artists were drawn to his work – then and now. He was a great influence on the art of his day and present day.

What makes this piece relevant today?

Zona: It shows great art is timeless. It speaks of universal concepts we all can relate to.

Anything else you’d like to mention about this piece?

Zona: “Snap The Whip” is the centerpiece of a collection which is considered one of America’s premier collections of American art. 

Compiled by Becky Raspe

On View

“Snap The Whip”

Artist: Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

Details: “Snap The Whip,” 1872; oil on canvas; 22 x 36 inches; signed, lower right. Image courtesy of The Butler Institute of American Art.

Acquired: Purchased by the museum’s founder Joseph G. Butler Jr. in 1919 and is part of the museum’s main collection.

Find it: “Snap The Whip” hangs in The Butler’s Cushwa Gallery on a wall featuring the museum’s late 19th century “genre” works.