A Visit from the Old Mistress

 

 A Visit From the Old Mistress and Continuity after the Civil War

In the South colored Folks is free and they’re not free:” [1]

 

In A Visit Form the Old Mistress, by Winslow Homer, the women look at each other as though staring across a battlefield. Their faces register a range of emotions, sadness, anger, and even resignation (figure one). To the right, an older, well-dressed white woman, presumably the old mistress herself, stands in profile, a study in sharp angular planes despite her feminine ruffled collar. On the other side of the field, a group of Africans American women return her stare, their bodies turned outward so that they appear rooted in place. A relatively well known image by an iconic American painter, A Visit from the Old Mistress has received considerable scrutiny. Scholars from across disciplines have stressed what Richard J. Powell describes as the “awkwardness, tension, and underlying volatility between the old mistress and her former slaves.”[2] Moreover, scholars often use this interpretation of the figures’ conflict to assert that Homer intended to highlight the South’s uncertain future during Reconstruction and African Americans’ place in the new social order.[3] Far from expressing a new relationship that emerged after the Civil War, A Visit from the Old Mistress depicts an unfortunate continuity in the lives of formerly enslaved women in the American South and hints at the ultimate failure of Radical Reconstruction.

1876, oil on canvas, by Winslow Homer Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2nd Floor, East Wing http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=10737 (figure one)
A Visit From the Old Mistress, 1876, oil on canvas, by Winslow Homer
Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2nd Floor, East Wing
http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=10737
(figure one)

In A Visit from the Old Mistress, the African American women stand near a roaring fireplace that casts a warm glow upon their bodies. Mistress, conversely, is across the room and rendered in cool tones. The women’s body posture also suggests differences between the two groups and hints at underlying hostility. While this tonal shift and the figures’ postures do create visual tension between the two sides of the painting, this tension and the uncertain relationship between the parties that exist within it does not necessarily reflect possible changes in black and white women’s relationships during Reconstruction. Prior to the war, the relationship between mistresses and their bondspeople is well documented by historians as being among the most intimate and volatile. Kind mistresses might intervene on behalf of an enslaved person, ameliorating some of the hardships of slavery, yet mistress’ cruelties also account for some of the most chilling violence committed against African Americans before, and after, the Civil War. White women, for instance, might arrange marriages and often referred to their black “family,”[4] but this intimacy could also backfire, as it did when one white mistress removed her bondswoman’s eye with a fork for improperly cooking a potato.[5] Additionally, although white mistresses could own both enslaved women and men, “most mistresses managed slave women rather than slave men.”[6] Therefore, Homer’s image of intimate tension between black and white women arguably represents a relationship that preceded the Civil War and is not necessarily a product of Reconstruction and changes in southern society.

The fact that the African American women remained in close enough proximity to receive an informal visit from ‘the old mistress’ is particularly significant, as recently freed women often worked in the same spaces and performed the same services for white employers before and after the Civil War. For instance, following the war formerly enslaved women sought domestic service in the homes of affluent white women, generally cleaning, laundering, and cooking. Indeed, genteel white women considered African American cooks a necessary symbol of status.[7] With the dismantling of the Freedman’s Bureau in 1872, and little means of generating income, formerly enslaved women were often forced to seek work outside the home before the end of Reconstruction. For many recently freed women this meant a return to field labor in the form of sharecropping. Homer reflects on African American women’s sharecropping in his 1876 painting, The Cotton Pickers. In it, two young women of color labor in a seemingly endless cotton field. Bearing heavy loads of cotton, both women are shabbily dressed. One young woman gazes somberly into the distance. Without the date, there is nothing in this image to suggest that these are freewomen after the war, rather than enslaved women before it.[8]

The Cotton Pickers, 1876, Oil on Canvas, by Winslow Homer The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art of the Americas Building, floor 3 http://collections.lacma.org/node/184714  (figure two)
The Cotton Pickers, 1876, Oil on Canvas, by Winslow Homer
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art of the Americas Building, floor 3
http://collections.lacma.org/node/184714 (figure two)

Moreover, in both of these paintings by Homer, the women of color appear poor, a fact that reflects African American women’s continued poverty after the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction to fundamentally change living conditions for women of color. As Laura Thornton, a former slave, recalled “[after the war] they said they was going to give the slaves something, but they never did do it.”[9] In addition to economic struggles, freewomen faced little change in social conditions and indeed confronted increased racial hostility. Those who complained risked violence from terrorist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. Miss Lee Guidon, also a former slave, vividly recalled one night in 1871 when the “Upper League,” later called the Klu Klux Klan, burst into her house in the middle of the night to search for her sister-in-law. The presence of northern soldiers did little to help her situation, she remembered, as the “white folks you live with say the Klu Klux going to [come] whoop you,” as soon as the northern soldiers weren’t around.[10] For formerly enslaved women, Reconstruction could mean very little change in their social or economic situation.

In his 1870 visits to Virginia, where he most likely did the preliminary sketches for A Visit from the Old Mistress, Homer undoubtedly saw “the change, or rather the absence of it, that Reconstruction had brought to the lives of former slaves.”[11] Sensitized to shifts in national culture from his experience as a war correspondent, Homer may well have understood that African American poverty and whites’ failure to embrace Reconstruction heralded a bleak future for former slaves. In addition to what he saw during his trips to Virginia, Homer would probably have been aware of the subtle shift in American national politics after 1875. For instance, in 1876 the U.S. Senate voted not to seat P.B. S. Pinchback, the African American former governor of Louisiana. Additionally, later that year, Wade Hampton, a leader in the Confederacy, became governor of South Carolina.[12] Indeed, within a year of completing A Visit from the Old Mistress, the contested presidency of 1876 resulted in the removal of northern troops from the South and the end of Reconstruction.  Therefore, Homer’s somber use of color, his bifurcated composition, and the cabin’s dreary interior in A Visit from the Old Mistress, likely signifies both his observations and the continuing political, social, and economic reality of formerly enslaved women after the Civil War.

 

SJS

 

[1] Frank Greene, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, Arkansas Narratives, Volume II, Part 6, pg 327. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi bin/ampage?collId=mesn&fileName=026/mesn026.db&recNum=332&tempFile=./temp/~ammem_g1Xm&filecode=mesn&next_filecode=mesn&prev_filecode=mesn&itemnum=4&ndocs=26 (accessed 2/23/15)

[2] Richard Powell, Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988), 11.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 33.

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6]  Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988) 97.

[7] Rebecca Sharpless, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South,1865-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 13-14.

[8] Rebecca Sharpless, Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1999), 1-3.

[9] Laura Thornton, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, Arkansas Narratives, Volume II, Part 6, pg 327. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mesn&fileName=026/mesn026.db&recNum=332&tempFile=./temp/~ammem_g1Xm&filecode=mesn&next_filecode=mesn&prev_filecode=mesn&itemnum=4&ndocs=26 (accessed 2/23/15)

[10] Ibid. 69.

[11] Michael Kimmelman “Winslow Homer” adapted from Spinning Myths Without Sentimentality, in The New York Times http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/h/winslow_homer/index.html (accessed 2/24/15)

[12] George Mason University, A Timline of Reconstruction, http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/122/recon/chron.html (accessed 2/24/15).

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