A Silent Tension

Published:August 6, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

A Visit from the Old Mistress by Winslow Homer, 1878. The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., provides some background:

A Visit from the Old Mistress captures a tentative encounter in the postwar South. The freed slaves are no longer obliged to greet their former mistress with welcoming gestures, and one remains seated as she would not have been allowed to do before the war. Winslow Homer composed the work from sketches he had made while traveling through Virginia; it conveys a silent tension between two communities seeking to understand their future. The formal equivalence between the standing figures suggests the balance that the nation hoped to find in the difficult years of Reconstruction.

Author Elizabeth Jones digs deeper:

Although the characters differ racially, economically, and generationally, the precise quality of their relationship before the war remains unclear. Had the “old mistress” been a tyrant or a guardian? a firm disciplinarian or a sympathetic nurse? She is arguably the oldest figure in the picture, her economic, social, and former political status representing an old way. The black women who look at her inquiringly seem to belong to three generations, with the oldest seated on the far left, the youngest the babe in arms. But just what character had these women developed in slavery? How did they help each other? How did they see their relation to the mistress?

Jones suggests that Homer was channeling the intensity of a midlife crisis into this painting and others from the same time. At least one critic was impressed: “[Homer’s] negro studies, recently brought from Virginia, are in several respects—in their total freedom from conventionalism and mannerism, in their strong look of life, and in their sensitive feeling for character—the most successful things of the kind that this country has yet produced.”