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America's Great Paintings: 'A Visit from the Old Mistress' (1876) by Winslow Homer

By Edited Oct 19, 2016 1 1

Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer is one of the great contradictions of American art. A realist, yet a romantic, Homer proudly painted only what he saw, yet also imbued his work with a psychological edge. Homer lived to paint the American landscape, yet made notable forays into social history. However, if the history of American proves nothing else, it is that contradiction is no impediment in reaching the pinnacle of one’s field and can act as the driving force towards success.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836, though his family moved to nearby Cambridge soon after, Homer enjoyed a childhood straight out of a Mark Twain novel, and his love of fishing, hunting, and roaming the countryside were to stay with him all through life. Homer’s character, of the traditional American outdoorsman, independent and self-reliant, meant he learned only from nature, and figured the rest out for himself through practice. Not for Homer a Harvard education, despite that august institution's proximity, and his preference for life experience over study extended to his affinity for painting.

Apprenticed at age nineteen to a local lithographer, Homer stuck out his training for two years and on leaving, vowed never to work for another man, or a regular wage, ever again. Instead, Homer chose the less secure living of a freelance illustrator, exchanging lithography for the oldest form of printing in existence, the engraved woodblock. This method remained popular in the mid-nineteenth century due to the burgeoning market in illustrated weekly papers, created by the literacy boom which followed the increase of public education.

Much of Homer’s work of the time featured in Harper’s Weekly, who commissioned Homer to cover the events of the American Civil War (1861-65). Around the same time, Homer taught

Prisoners
himself oil painting and soon made this his customary medium. As well as battles, Homer also depicted life at camp, soldiers at ease playing cards, entertaining themselves or celebrating Thanksgiving; Home Sweet Home (1863) remains a classic example of his output during this time. Prisoners from the Front (1866), a sympathetic portrayal of captured Confederacy soldiers defiant under the gaze of a Union officer, proved a huge hit when exhibited in Paris in 1867, where Homer spent a year improving his technique, while remain largely immune to outside influence.

For the most part however, Homer painted pictures appealing to people’s sense of nostalgia, of the supposed simpler times before the Civil War. These often depicted farm scenes, people hard at work on the harvest, milkmaids and young laboring boys, or just children at leisure in the fields, as seen in Snap the Whip (1872) and Crossing the Pasture (1871). Through all this, Homer’s main influence remained the Hudson River School, and like those artists, his work, even when of ‘generic’ landscapes, retained something quintessentially American, such as we see in Long Branch, New Jersey (1869). The picture shows not a traditional scene, but a modern fashionable resort populated with delicate young women, not a common subject at the time, yet still somehow authentically American in its structure and use of color. In subject alone, it is readable as an American analogue, or anticipation, of La Grand Jatte (1884-86) by French painter Georges Seurat.

The key to a painting such as that of Seurat and Homer comes in its psychology, though Homer would doubtless have scoffed at such an idea: “When I have selected the thing carefully, I paint in exactly as it appears,” he once said, but this doesn’t mean Homer merely painted the world as it appeared physically, but also the emotions and motivations behind a scene. Both Long Branch and La Grande Jatte have a cold, isolating feel, which one realizes stems from none of their human characters addressing or even looking at each other, each figure exists as fixed points no different from the trees or the buildings. This is a change from Prisoners from the Front, or an outwardly idyllic piece such as Gloucester Farm (1874), with their glares and meaningful expressions.

Homer’s love of the sea and untamed nature would see him return to more rugged and exotic shores later than Long Branch later in his career, but in 1876, Homer undertook a tour of Virginia which informed some of his more politically charged works, such as Dressing for Carnival (1877) and A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876).  

In the latter case, Prisoners from the Front formed a template, a rare example of Homer returning to a previous success, but the effect of ten years earlier is concentrated in A Visit from the Old Mistress. We see a white woman of late middle age paying a call on three women who were once her slaves; perhaps her husband owned a cotton plantation. Remember of course, this doesn’t mean the three black women present worked for her; she owned the three women, as surely as she owns the ring glinting on her finger. Times have changed however, and if the mistress thought her former slaves might be glad to see her, she is sorely mistaken. There is tension, distrust, unease, and despite the fireplace at far left, the air has turned cold. The three women stare back at the mistress, who returns the stare of the woman nearest to her, slightly off-center to the painting, as befits a situation where the mistress may have expected to take the central part.

A Visit from the Old Mistress
Taking the figures from left to right, the woman furthest left stays in her seat, something unthinkable during her time of servitude, when she would have stood out of respect in her mistress's presence, or face punishment for insubordination. Instead, she remains seated, yet slightly hunched, as if protecting herself by instinct from the feared punishment of the past, or to shrink from view of the mistress. Hand raised to the face, yet tilting it to the mistress, she doesn’t quite know how to react, and so plays out her vexed feelings through body language, conflicted between blocking out the mistress and hearing, perhaps out of curiosity, what she has come to say. She directs her gaze away from the mistress, stuck somewhere between the two states of attention and ignoring.

Next along, the woman holding the infant (who stares at this older white woman as if she’s not seen the like in her young life) has a less conflicted, more neutral gaze; she has the mistress in her sights, but with an expression pointed in its blankness (yet with the merest hint of pity), as if she will not give the mistress the benefit of seeing her angry or worried, but can still let the older woman know how she feels about the visit she has ‘bestowed’ upon the household. With her back titled, partly due to the weight of the infant, but also through an instinctive distancing move from the mistress, this hint of submission balances out through the tilt of the head slightly downwards.

As for the child, she has one eye covered by her fetching floppy hat, as her tender age prevents her from viewing the scene for what it really is, although she still reacts to this imposing, yet ethereal figure – a ghost from the past, visiting the woman of the future?

The woman nearest the mistress is under no doubt as to the situation. Her look is of contempt, mixed with a touch of menace, lowering her head only to meet the eyes of her former mistress. Arms relaxed at either side, she offers nothing except her steely stare, any other form of exertion would be wasted on her former ‘owner.’ A solid and physical presence, almost like a column holding up the roof, this woman, after years of backbreaking labor, could bend the older white woman into two; yet all she deems worthy of her energy is that stare, through which nothing becomes everything. Ominously, the woman, with her back to the door, controls the only visible means of escape.

For her part, the mistress is startled by this underwhelming reception. It could be that back in the day, she deluded herself into thinking the slaves were happy as part of her family and were content with their work and place in life. Whatever the past circumstances, the mistress did not prepare herself for the sight before her now. Lost, she meets the nearest woman’s stare, anchoring herself, trying to understand, or merely showing that although taken aback, these women will not have the better of her for long; there is also a slight flare of anger at this impertinence in her eyes at the need to adjust – if she can adjust. The mistress’ dress marks her out as different, black and rich, in contrast to the ex-slaves’ ragged patchwork of clothes, many hued, but drab. Black – the mistress is in mourning, if not for a person, then for the years she had the power to own human beings. A Visit from the Old Mistress tells a story in which that of the future is as intriguing as that of a past, distant to the mistress, but all too close to the three black woman, with the space between the two parties wrought with differing perspectives, and a challenge for all to overcome.  

Later in his career, after spending a year in north-eastern England (1881-82), Homer retreated to his studio in Prout’s Neck, Maine, where he abandoned oil painting for watercolours, mastering that medium more powerfully than any other. Now almost a recluse, Homer focussed on painting shorelines and seascapes, and gradually left out human figures from his work altogether. By the time Homer died in 1910 he had more than secured his place as one of the great, if not greatest, American painters of his time, owing little to foreign influence and forging his own path, a voice in the American wilderness, if not the voice of the wilderness, Winslow Homer is only a true, great American painter, but a true, original American. 

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Comments

Feb 28, 2015 6:46am
Millsy36
Thank you for the detailed synopsis of this interesting painting.
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