Portraits from Slavery.

Portraits from Slavery.

Reviewed by Emory S. Campbell

Vol. 11, No. 5, 1989, pp. 15-16

Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks by Peter H. Wood and Karen C.C. Dalton (University of Texas, 1989. Paper, 144 pp. $19.95.)

Until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Civil War and Reconstruction years were the most significant period of events for freedom and equality in the history of African-Americans. The rise from the brutality of slavery, through the efforts of abolitionists and eventually the destructive Civil War, to freedom produced a tremendous challenge, for the African-American themselves and for the nation. It is one as well for the recorders of history.

Although the Civil War and Reconstruction have been well documented, Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks reveals another outstanding dimension to this pivotal period in American history, and particularly African-American history.

Winslow Homer was an American artist who is best known for his paintings of the sea and symbols of rugged individuals of the sea. Born in Boston in 1836, Homer was employed by Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War to illustrate war scenes. But his interest in the plight of black people began during his childhood, when discussions of slavery and the abolitionist movement were very much a part of his daily life.

Peter H. Wood, professor of history at Duke University, and C.C. Dalton of the Menil Foundation, carefully and learnedly explain the life of Homer and his paintings of African-Americans. The authors, in examining fifty-eight very graphic paintings, have in essence produced a fitting eulogy for both Winslow Homer, who was obviously a compassionate artist, and the portrayed African-Americans as they struggled to achieve freedom and self-determination.

Wood, whose earlier work, Black Majority, is proudly acclaimed by both black Americans and scholars of black history, and Dalton, an equally enthusiastic and accomplished historian, not only bring light into a dark period with their interpretations, but explore the development of Homer the artist through childhood and young adulthood. Homer’s parents encouraged “his interest in drawing from an early age,” and, although his parents moved to Cambridge (nearer to Harvard) from Boston to give him a chance to attend Harvard, “Win wanted to draw,” and elected not to attend Harvard.

Wood and Dalton skillfully point out that Homer’s motivation for drawing images of blacks, and their struggle for freedom, could very well have come from his own personal experience while working “for the Boston lithographic firm of John Buford and Saws where he undertook a tedious apprenticeship that lasted until his 21st birthday”; …”and since the day he left it, he has called no man master.”

Homer’s parents were opposed to slavery and were members of Boston’s Hanover Street Congregational Church, where Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the preacher. The Rev. Beecher, who was oblivious to slavery, moved his flock to Bowdoin Street, and was later replaced by a popular younger clergyman

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named Hubbard Winslow. Mrs. Homer also transferred her membership to Bowdoin Street and named her infant Winslow, “in accordance with a common practice of the time.” But when in 1837 William Lloyd Garrison began “to organize a Children’s Antislavery Crusade,” ironically the clergyman for whom Winslow Homer was named denounced the organization, and the Homers moved to Cambridge with abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Perhaps the strength of the authors’ text lies in its interpretation of Winslow’s sensitivities to the subject, as they relate events to appropriate paintings. For an example, they see two possible interpretations of the painting, View of Mount Vernon and North Colonnade, of 1861. One, that Homer’s only objective was to display the exterior view of the dilapidated home of the nation’s first president, at a time when a national fund drive to purchase and preserve it gave way to a “struggle to preserve the Union itself.” But another, they say, may have been Homer’s main purpose. They propose that since small, remote, figures are coming from a dark cellar, Homer was describing the fact that “enslaved persons were beginning to emerge from beneath the large and darkened structure of plantation society.”

The authors puzzle over the painting, The Baggage Train: Was Homer, they seem to ask, likening freed citizens of color to “excess baggage–men who refuse to pull their own weight?” Then, as if to present the other side, Wood and Dalton interpret Homer’s Blossom Time in Virginia–a young boy proudly plowing a field, “in preparation to planting” — : “this springtime scene embodies the hope born in Afro-Americans after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.”

This book is more than a scholarly interpretation of the works of one of the nation’s famous artists. It is also an excellent guide for learning about the events leading to the Civil War, the Civil War itself, and the Reconstruction era. I for the first time was able to see real character in African-Americans during and after the Civil War era. Heretofore, I envisioned confusion and despair among the contrabands. Indeed, the paintings exude tremendous emotions: hope, joy, and a sense of direction and place. And the accompanying text produces a welcome array of interpretations that reach other dimensions.

For those who enjoy art without assistance in interpreting the artist’s subjects, the comments by Wood and Dalton could be annoying and even boring. Sometimes the obvious is explained. On the other hand, those same readers will enjoy the authors’ meticulous comparison of Homer’s images with those of other artists: e.g., Thomas Nast’s He Wants a Change Too with Homer’s Carnival, pointing out distinct differences.

Although Peter Wood’s Black Majority could be considered the pinnacle of most historians’ careers, readers of this book will be glad that was not his last work. This book rightfully belongs in every American home, especially if one is of African-American descent. It is a wonderful reminder of the great achievement of black people from slavery to freedom.

EMORY CAMPBELL is director of the historic and still vibrant Penn Center of the Sea Islands, on St Helena Island, South Carolina.