Recently, I had done a series of blogs on the representation of African Americans in art. It seems incomplete without including the sensitive post-Civil War works of Winslow Homer in which he depicts African Americans standing at the threshold between slavery and freedom. Homer (1836-1910) is regarded as one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century.
Andersonville (Camp Sumter) was a brutal civil war camp where 10s of thousands of Union soldiers died. In this poetic painting a woman stands at the threshold between slavery and freedom – darkness and light.
In A Visit from the Mistress, 1876, the old mistress visits the Afrcan American women who are warmed by the glow of the fireplace, while the old mistress looks cold and angular. The body posture and the rather stiff visit all give a sense on underlying hostility, and a sense that despite the radical shift not much has changed in reality.
This painting is the subject of considerable debate as to Homer’s meaning. Whatever the interpretation – the men here are taking a well-deserved break after hard work in the army and exude dignity and a sense of calm.
What at first glance appears to be an idyllic childhood scene, is in reality a depiction of post-Civil war reality. The young boy in the front, and the one under the tree are doing all the work, while the other two boys look at the action and offer no assistance. Homer’s work here seems to be speaking volumes for the difficult future that lies ahead.
(Images courtesy MFA Boston, NC Museum, Google Arts & Culture).