Julian Scott’s artistic career grew out of his service in the Civil War. In 1861, at age 15, he enlisted as a musician in the Third Vermont Regiment, and his bravery in action earned him the first Congressional Medal of Honor ever awarded. While recuperating from an injury, Scott took up sketching vignettes of army camp life. After the war, he received formal training at the National Academy of Design, and in the 1870s and 1880s, his military genre scenes became extremely popular. Scott later turned to Western American themes especially those relating to Native Americans. His photographs provided supplementary documentation for The 1890 Census of Indians Taxed and Untaxed.
Although it was completed in 1881, A Break: Playing Cards probably derived from a Civil War experience. Like Winslow Homer and George Lambdin, Scott chose to portray a tranquil activity over a heated battle scene. He crafted a stable, balanced composition, arranging the elements – flag, drum, and rifles – with meticulous precision. Scott was also most attentive to details of military uniform: two soldiers wear the standard blue, while the seated figures are probably state militia volunteers, who wore their own uniforms. The seated soldier at right may be a Green Mountain Brigade volunteer from Scott’s native Vermont. The card player in the red hat is in the Zouave costume derived from the eponymous battalion of the French army.