Painted soon after General Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln's assassination five days later, Homer's canvas depicts an emblematic farmer, revealed to be a Union veteran as well by his discarded jacket and canteen at the lower right. His old-fashioned scythe evokes the Grim Reaper, recalling the war's harvest of death and expressing grief at Lincoln's murder. A redemptive feature is bountiful wheat—a northern crop—which could connote the Union's victory. Referring to death and life, Homer's iconic composition offers a powerful meditation on America's sacrifices and its potential for recovery.
In terms of artistic strategy, Homer's painting seemingly blends Realist and Impressionist techniques in what would be described as a uniquely American style. The working figure of the soldier, painted in a relatively naturalistic style, suggests the hard labor of the solitary figure under the bright sun as he swings his tool across the wheat. By comparison, the wheat reads as Impressionistic, even though this painting dates before the beginnings of the Parisian style or Homer's trip to France. As Nicolas Cikovsky (curator at the Washington National Gallery) writes, "It had been Homer's practice to paint out of doors well before he went to France, so it cannot have been Impressionism ‑ even in the improbable event that he knew of it - that introduced Homer to the practice of open-air painting. It had been a central part of his artistic method virtually from his beginnings as a painter." The blending of naturalistic and impressionist styles in this and other works from the late 1860s are thought by many to have yielded a strong influence on American Impressionism, which, while focusing on different subjects, adopted some of the same loose brushstrokes.