Episode 5 – Podcast: The Civil War and American Art

Episode 5 – Podcast: The Civil War and American Art


music – In 1876, Winslow Homer traveled to Virginia,
and on his return to New York, he painted several monumental works that explored the relationship between blacks and whites during the Reconstruction period in the South. In this painting, titled “A Visit from the Old Mistress,” Homer explores the new power relationship between black and white women after the emancipation of the slaves. Here, this white woman, who clearly is visiting women who used to belong to her, is coming to the abrupt realization that these black women don’t particularly like her, they are not happy to see her and in fact whatever she has come to ask about,
the answer may in fact be no. For the black women themselves, the ability to set the terms of their employment, to ask for wages, to decide who to work for and who not to work for and what tasks to do or to refuse to do
is a new privilege and clearly, what is happening here, is an awkward moment between these two women and as they decide on what terms they will or won’t get along. The tension in this painting is palpable. The stare down between these two women is discomforting and extremely effective. But Homer made a pivotal change in this painting. Between the time that he first painted it and the time that he sold it, he painted out what we can now see, which is the right arm of the white woman held close to her chest. It seems the former mistress may once have carried a red flower, perhaps a goodwill offering or a symbol of her own heartache. But Homer painted out this softening element and left the final image as one of stark confrontation. In doing so, he winnowed and concentrated the meeting, focusing on the tension between black and white and the unresolved issues at the end of the war. We can now see this arm, in part because over the last 100 years, the paint that Homer used to mask this has become slightly transparent and the ghost of that image of a hand clasping a flower can now be seen. It’s an opportunity to have a window into the changes in mind and mood that the artist made as he completed this work. – music –

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