A measured freedom: national unity and racial containment in Winslow Homer’s The Cotton Pickers, 1876

A measured freedom: national unity and racial containment in Winslow Homer’s The Cotton Pickers, 1876

The Mississippi Quarterly
Spring, 2002

Susanna W. Gold, Assistant Professor of Art
Tyler School of Art, Temple University

The Cotton Pickers
Winslow Homer (United States, Massachusetts, Boston, 1836-1910)
United States, 1876
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 24 1/16 × 38 1/8 in. (61.12 × 96.84 cm) Frame: 35 1/4 × 49 1/2 × 4 in. (89.54 × 125.73 × 10.16 cm)
Acquisition made possible through (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) Museum Trustees: Robert O. Anderson, R. Stanton Avery, B. Gerald Cantor, Edward W. Carter, Justin Dart, Charles E. Ducommun, Camilla Chandler Frost, Julian Ganz, Jr., Dr. Armand Hammer, Harry Lenart, Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, Mrs. Joan Palevsky, Richard E. Sherwood, Maynard J. Toll, and Hal B. Wallis (M.77.68)

After Traveling to Virginia during the Civil War as a field illustrator for the New York journal Harper’s Weekly, Winslow Homer returned to this area toward the end of the Reconstruction period to paint primarily around Richmond and Petersburg. Having abandoned his career as illustrator to devote himself exclusively to painting, Homer sketched outdoors near the shanties in black neighborhoods and wandered among the fields to find inspiration for several images of Southern black life that included his 1876 painting, The Cotton Pickers (Fig. 1).

Depicted are two young black women in the midst of a vast, seemingly endless field abounding in ripened snowy-white cotton bursting from its hulls and awaiting harvest The pair, rendered in robust and healthy proportion, stand engulfed in thigh-high cotton plants at the front of the picture plane and are the focus of the painting as they pause from their work picking cotton. Most scholarship on The Cotton Pickers interprets the artist’s rendering of Southern blacks as sympathetic, and perceives an optimistic future for the black situation under the new political and social structures following the Civil War. Public reception of The Cotton Pickers was favorable; the painting was purchased immediately at its first exhibition at New York’s Century Association in 1877, and a subsequent exhibition review claimed that “the freshest piece of figure painting that Mr. Winslow Homer has put his name to is his latest work, the Cotton Pickers, which provoked the admiration of the artists at the latest reception.” Noted art critic George W. Sheldon acknowledged Homer’s black genre works for their “total freedom from conventionalism and mannerism, in their strong look of life and in their sensitive feeling for character,” and the New York Times praised Homer as “one of the few artists who have the boldness and originality to make something of the Negro for artistic purposes.”

Among contemporary scholars, one author notes in his 1990 study of the history of the black image in American art, that Homer’s “sensitive recording of the uniqueness of individuality” in his black genre paintings “represents a high water mark in nineteenth-century artistic expression of African-American identity.” Another analysis praises The Cotton Pickers as a work that “stands apart from paintings of its period in the degree of grace and majesty it gives to its subjects” (Quick, p. 61), and yet a third study recognizes that “these black women seem larger than life and filled with strength and confidence in their ability to chart their own destinies” (Wood and Dalton, p. 97). Indeed, Homer seems to have been consistently admired for his ability to render the Southern black laborer with empathy and respectful sobriety in a world accustomed to regarding blacks as inferior…

Emancipation may have destroyed the master-slave relationship, but the slaveholding ideologies remained intact up through the year of the Centennial.

The exploitation inherent in the forms of free labor in the postbellum South can be seen in the imagery of The Cotton Pickers. Because the vast expanse of land appears to be part of a large farm or plantation, the two figures are most likely common wage laborers rather than the more economically advantaged sharecroppers or landowners. Had the land been tenanted under the sharecropping system or owned by the laborers, we might expect to see a much smaller parcel of land spotted with cabins, garden plots, or other family members engaged in domestic work such as tending farm animals or collecting firewood. The age and gender of the figures represent the most profitable wage employee to the planter, as women and children received only one-half to two-thirds of the wages of men, and thus proved to be economically advantageous to planters who gained a greater profit from their labor.  As both wage earners and as young women, these figures would have been doubly exploited.

Homer depicts the extensive plantation completely full of cotton, as the entire field has yet to be worked. No progress from the women’s labor is visible, although the basket and sack are full. The fact that the end of the field is nowhere in sight suggests that the work can never be completed, that these women are trapped by the boundless field of cotton. As if to underscore this vision of entrapment, the cotton plants figuratively cut off the legs of the women, so that they are unable to move and escape from their situation. Like the labor system under which they work, this combination of pictorial elements that bind the women to the field suggests hopelessness in the place of tree emancipation.

The suggestion of a fruitless future for the black American is reinforced in the faces of the two young figures. Homer endows the women with traditional Caucasian features by painting them with light skin and slender facial bone structure. By representing the figures with a combination of both prototypical black and white physical characteristics, Homer portrays them as products of sexual mingling between the races. Although interracial cohabitation had been prevalent since the Colonial era, mulattos born in the period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries were often the result of sexual relations between white males of the planter class and their domestic slaves. Common almost to the point on institutionalization, wealthy Southern planters kept regular concubines and bred entire families of mixed-race children, the result being an unprecedented increase in mulatto slavery during the years 1850-60.  Based on the appearance of the two figures in Homer’s 1876 painting, their logical birth dates would fall near the height of interracial procreation, raising the distinct possibility that these women were fathered by the plantation owner.

The mixed-blood heritage of these women posed another problem in the progress of the black American. According to racial mythology advanced by the white population in response to the imagined threat to the purity of the white race, mulattos were doomed to biological eradication and could not reproduce beyond a few generations. Unable to sustain their heritage, the mulatto would be denied a place in America’s future, and the world of the powerless mixed-race individual was understood by whites to be one in which significant progressive change for the black situation could never occur.

Although Homer translates the limited progress of blacks toward a successful future in his painting by depicting the two young women as mulattos, the reality of the black situation in the Centennial decade proved quite a different situation. Precisely because many mulattos of the mid-nineteenth century were born to wealthy white fathers, they often received special treatment both within the black community and from their slaveholding relations. Planter fathers commonly provided property rights to their illegitimate mulatto children in their wills, and sometimes even granted their manumission. Protected by their masters-fathers, these children were customarily relieved from backbreaking field labor and given education and specialized training for favorable work assignments from carpentry or building and machine maintenance to dressmaking, cooking, and child care (Williamson, New People, p. 56). Respected for their highly ranking labor positions and esteemed for the valuable association with white blood, mulatto offspring of white planters generally enjoyed a privileged status on the plantation among the slaves (Williamson, After Slavery, p. 315)…

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