“The Cotton Pickers,” painted by Winslow Homer in 1876, is a mix between realism and impressionism displaying heroic plantation workers.
Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1836. Mostly self taught, Homer was a landscape painter and a print-maker. Homer is renown for his expressive facial renderings of ‘unusual,’ rural subjects. Homer studied and painted in Europe in the later part of his life, impacting his style. However, this new stylistic development helped Homer display ‘unusual’ muses as graceful and heroic. Because of his realism and sensitivity towards his subjects, Homer is known as “first American consistently to paint African Americans without the prevailing attitudes of condescension and sentimentality” (LAMCA).
As seen in “The Cotton Pickers,” there is a realistic view of these slave-like workers: it is early morning and the two women have already filled their baskets full of cotton. There is no sugar-coating the fact that they have probably been working before dawn. Black codes are forcing these women into an inevitable cycle of labor. But the slave women are looking onward… They are surrounded in a hazy Impressionistic swirl of oppression but are keeping a stoic and determined face. They have been glorified by Homer.
Now what was happening at history at the time was rather poignant. In 1876, the date “The Cotton Pickers” was painted, Federal troops were being taken out of the south. Reconstruction was coming to an end, and the Federal Government decided to switch from helping their new vulnerable citizens, to helping rich industrialists fight labor unions. The years right before Homer painted “The Cotton Pickers,” African-Americans had hopes of drastic improvement. But this idealism was short lived, as racism and a newer harsher form of black codes (Jim Crow Laws) was soon to be created.
In contrast to the new disappointment in many southern Freedmen, Homer still paints these two women fieldworkers with sympathy and strength. He paints with a low vantage point, making the women take the whole composition. The women are not fatigued, but erect: exemplifying their will-power to withhold their current circumstances. The woman to the right in red looks defiant, a attitude which will help in the future.
Again, as the woman in red looks onward to the left, we can notice how the background changes from right to left: from one tree to a forest. Or it can be interpreted as one hope turning into a unified force of change: a prediction for the civil rights movement.
“American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life.” Art for Change. 2010 http://art-for-a-change.com/blog/2010/03/american-stories-paintings-of-everyday-life.html
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LAMCA). “The Cotton Pickers” -currently on view. http://collections.lacma.org/node/184714
“The Cotton Pickers” – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches
Winslow Homer – The Complete Works. 2015. http://www.winslow-homer.com/