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Cotton Pickers by Winslow Homer

Question 1

Cotton Pickers is considered to be the most outstanding painting that describes the post-war period. The painting shows two African-American women picking cotton in the field. The women are silent and there is a sad expression on their faces. The painting also reflects on the disillusioned feeling of despair and inevitability because women had to pick the cotton prior and after the war. Although the painting depicts the post-war period, as well as the time of liberating African-Americans from slavery, the question of freedom still remains when it comes to the sitters in the painting. In the Cotton Pickers, one woman has a full basket, whereas the other half-filled her bag. Although neither of women is picking the cotton, the women on the left are going to touch it. Both figures reflect thoughtfulness and desperateness; they are separated from the surrounding world and, therefore, their prewar and postwar activities did not actually change. The women differ from other Homer’s sitters. As Johns states, “…unlike the privileged Northern young women, protected by law and social customer, they are laborers, their function public in that they the “Negroes” of whom newspapers writer and politicians speak” (84). Therefore, the painting is perceived as a solitary representation of two women, who are doomed to working at plantations.

While looking at the painting, I see two young women whose slavery past is imprinted on their faces. They are frustrated and upset, as if they do not know how they must live after the slavery. The women continue picking cotton although they do not have to. In addition, women fail to understand that the war is over and they had to live further. Specifically, the concept of freedom is already presented in the painting, but women need to realize that picking cotton is not the activity they can be involved in; in fact, they can reconsider their views. 

Question 2

The women are dressed in cotton blouses and long skirts. The colors and texture on the painting are blurred and dim. There is no contrast in shadows and textures, except for the background which seems to be much lighter than the women are. In fact, darker colors used for depicting women identify the entire atmosphere of the painting. The flowers can symbolize freedom and liberation from the war and slavery. According to Carney, “Homer creates a gap between the specificity of the realistic details and the mysterious evocativeness of the expressions and oblique glances that makes the uneasy relationship of consciousness to ordinary life the subject of painting” (212). In this respect, the artist pays attention to the frame space that goes beyond the physical world identified by his paintings. By presenting the horizons and winds in the painting, the painter achieves symbolism of the appreciation of intangible sublimity through the individual consciousness of the participants isolated from the group. The women are dressed in humble clothes, which imply that they had to work for their white owner. They are still isolated from the external world because their place is at the plantation. Delineation from the real world and the social group defines the fate of two African American women. 

The assumption that women are represented in isolation is justified in terms of color. In particular, color at the foreground is more dense and intensified, whereas the background is much lighter and less intensified (Vlach 41). Therefore, while capturing the full image of the painting, the importance of color and shadow representation is highly emphasized. In addition, Homer’s ability to manipulate colors identifies the painting as difficult, sophisticated interplay of textures, shadows, hues, and transitions from light to dark. The background, therefore, is perceived as something light and weightless, whereas the laborers are heavier and darker because they are bound to the epoch of slavery. 

Question 3

Homer depicts plantation that is full of cotton that the African laborers have to gather in the crops. Although no progress is noticed in the field, the women’s baskets are full. The fact that the field is located nowhere demonstrates that the harvest will never be gathered. Hence, it seems that the women will always be engaged in cotton picking. To emphasize the idea, the cotton plants prevent the audience from seeing the laborers’ legs, and there is an illusion that the women’s are unable to move and escape from slavery (Weinberg and Barratt 57). Similar to this figurative representation, the labor system that imposes responsibilities on the sitters could be exploited in an ambivalent manner. It also introduces a sophisticated mixture of pictorial elements that turn women into desperate laborers that are doomed to work till the eternity at the plantations. 

By introducing the women with a mixture of white and black features, Homer represents them as outcomes of sexual mingling between white and black races. Despite the fact that interracial cohabitation was dominating during the Colonial Era, the spread of mulattos from the middle of eighteenth century till the middle of nineteenth century was caused by the development of sexual relations between the planter class and their white owners (Gold n. p.). Similar to the period of institutionalization, wealthy Southern planters were involved in the mixed-race relations, leading to a dramatic increase of mulatto slavery in the 50-60s of the eighteenth century. With reference to the context, the Homer painting explains the logical depiction of two mulatto women, leading to the assumption that their fathers were white plantation owners. The mix-blooded generation led to another serious problem, as far as social progress of the African American was concerned. 

Question 4

Winslow Homer is regarded as the most outstanding American artist in the nineteenth century. He was born in Boston, where he later started his career as a printmaker. In 1859, he moved to New York, where he started his career. He was also interested in oil painting and studied new illustrated journals that date back to 1863. In the late 60s and the 70s of the nineteenth century, Homer was engaged in the artistic experimentation and prolific outcome (Weinberg n. p.). While living in New York, the artist made his living by designing illustrations for magazines, although he also gradually shaped his reputation as a painter.  In 1866, Homer moved to Paris where he temporarily lived and studied French countryside. In this respect, the majority of his works were under the influence of the French avant-garde. In addition, Homer was fond of serial imagery, which compelled him to embrace the light, as well as simple and flat forms (Weinberg n. p.). The artist appreciated Japanese design principles, as well as free brushwork. This is particularly seen in the painting under analysis. Interest in oil pain was turned into the use of water colors, making him a successful illustrator (Wood 2). In the 1880s, the painter had become extremely solitude and, as a result, his creative work acquired a new intensity. In particular, he moved to England and settled in Cullercoats to remain there till 1882. He became interested in the life of the courageous villagers, particularly women, whom he used to depict as engaged in various household activities. In 1883, Homer moved to New York where, apart from his trips to Canada, the Caribbean, and Adirondacks, he stopped at Prout’s Neck until the end of his life. He was fond of isolation and concentrated on force, drama, and beauty. Working in isolation has had a potent impact on the themes of his paintings. This is of particular concern to Cotton Picker, where women are depicted separated from the society.

Works Cited

  • Gold, Susanna W. “A Measured Freedom: National Unity and Racial Containment in Winslow Homer’s The Cotton Picker”. The Mississippi Quarterly 2002. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.mixedracestudies.org/wordpress/?p=21122>
  • Johns, Elizabeth. Winslow Homer: The Nature of Observation. California: University of California, 2002. Print.
  • Mizoeff, Nicholas. Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.
  • Tatham, David and Winslow Homer. Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Print.
  • Vlach, John Michael. The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Planation Paintings. Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2002. Print.
  • Weinberg, Helene Barbara. “Winslow Homer (1836-1910)”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/homr/hd_homr.htm>
  • Weinberg, Helene Barbara and Carrie Debora Barratt. American Stories: Painting of Everyday Life, 1765-1915. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. Print.
  • Wood, P. H. Near Andersonville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.