Painting decisive moments

Different Strokes

Winslow Homer's 'Sketching in the White Mountains'.

If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.
—Abraham Lincoln

 

I feel sorry for the poor negroes…  Still, when they go I can’t help feeling as if they are deserting us for the enemy, and it seems humiliating to be compelled to bargain and haggle with our own servants about wages.  

—Eliza Frances Andrews 

(daughter of a slave-owner)

Homer
Winslow Homer

 

 

This is the story of a small but significant American painting. A visit from the Old Mistress, painted by Winslow Homer in 1876, shows a white woman in the company of three black women. She was (most probably) their former mistress. A black woman is seen holding a small child; another one sits on a stool. Their posture and attitude intensify the already overwrought atmosphere. Besides palpable tension, the scene is swamped with awkwardness and high pressure. Obviously, there is no love shared between the white visitor and black women. Cold stares, hostile body language, and distinct adversarial overtones mark the narrative. 

The white lady is visiting her erstwhile house slaves to renegotiate for their labour. But circumstances have obviously changed. They are no longer under her mercy, and are possibly meeting her with reluctance. The white woman, on her part, cannot forget her earlier authority, but knows that she is now at the receiving end.   

Realist & romantic

Homer, who was 40 when he painted the image, captures this simmering moment and the essential mood of the conflict with great understanding. He offers no detailed commentary or explanation of the situation, but leaves it to the viewer to form his/her own conclusion. “Winslow Homer is one of the great contradictions of American art,” explains art historian William Cook.” A realist, yet a romantic, Homer proudly painted only what he saw, yet also imbued his work with a psychological edge,” he states.

The American Civil War (1861–1865) had ended more than 10 years before Homer painted A visit from the Old Mistress. President Abraham Lincoln, who had led the country through those turbulent years, had been assassinated on April 15, 1865. The war had been deadly; it had, according to a historian, “left the physical and psychological landscapes of the region devastated as a traditionally proud people struggled to comprehend their loss, rebuild their environments, adjust to Reconstruction and Emancipation, and restore their collective identity.”

The memory of the war impacted African-Americans profoundly, as it had brought them freedom from slavery.

Homer saw the Civil War from close quarters. When it broke out in early 1861, he was working in New York as a freelance illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. The new illustrated journal sent him to the front lines for a week in October 1861, and again for two months in April 1862. That is when he extensively sketched battle scenes and camp life; and drew portraits of commanders and army officers. His gaze did not miss ordinary men and women during those tough times, and showed the effects of the war on their domestic lives. 

The war work proved to be dangerous as well as exhausting for Homer. But the experience proved invaluable to the 25-year-old budding artist who worked on a series of war-related paintings based on his sketches. This helped him grow, over time, from a mere illustrator to a significant figure of 19th-century American art. His paintings reflected a profound understanding of the war and its effect on man and nature. 

Art historian Marc Simpson observes, “In these (paintings of the Civil War), Homer’s earliest works, we can see glimmerings of the themes of mortality, isolation, and nature’s adversity that would come to dominate his later art.”

Homer exhibited his war paintings every year at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866. One of his paintings, Home, Sweet Home (1863) became particularly popular. Critics acknowledged the power and boldness of its execution, and praised ‘the delicacy and strength of emotion which reign throughout this little picture.’

A Visit from the Old Mistress.
A Visit from the Old Mistress.

Distinctive

In this 21½ x 16½ inch painting, Homer focused on two soldiers in a war-torn camp lost in their own private thoughts. Shunning sentimentality, the image presented the men and their circumstances with precision and authenticity. It also, in a way, captured the dominant national mood of reconciliation, even as it illuminated the physical and psychological plight of ordinary soldiers. 

“In this uncertain and troubled time, Homer’s image took no sides,” explains a critic. “Focusing on the general experience of individual soldiers, and describing their circumstances with care and delicacy, the artist ensured a sympathetic response in his audience, whatever their position on the war. The painting continues to do so today.”

Home Sweet Home was quickly sold. More than a century later, on June 5, 1997, at a Christie’s New York auction, the painting was peddled for over 2.6 million USD, exceeding the pre-auction estimate of 1.5 – 2.5 million. Homer’s subsequent paintings demonstrated his sense of artistic experimentation and creativity. They continued to deal with serious moments of human struggle within an indifferent and often unforgiving universe.

By 1880, he had decided to work in solitude and privacy, shunning the company of other people.

His visit to England in 1881 and return to America in 1883 marked a shift in his themes when the sea became the dominant feature of his work. 

Later in his career, he abandoned oil painting and concentrated on watercolours. He became a recluse, focussed on painting shorelines and seascapes, which were to become the most extravagantly admired of all his works. 

Homer died in 1910. Well known during his lifetime, his artistic achievements came for higher appreciation in the years following his death.

His paintings such as A Visit from the Old Mistress (which is in the collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC), and Home, Sweet Home (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) continue to attract attention for both historical and artistic reasons.

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