The Graduate Center - City University of New York

“Winslow Homer’s ‘Cotton Pickers,’” New York Evening Post (1877)

As a wartime illustrator, Winslow Homer sketched scenes in and around Petersburg, Virginia. He returned after the war from 1874 to 1876 to create watercolors and studies of the rural life of African Americans. This painting of two women cotton pickers, completed in 1876 and exhibited and sold in 1877, was lauded by many art reviewers including this one from the New York Evening Post—in this case mistakenly describing the subjects as "slave women" while also recognizing, in vague terms,  the discontent and adversity they faced in the waning years of Reconstruction.

Date: March 30, 1877

Publisher: New York Evening Post

Source: American Social History Project

Altogether the strongest and freshest piece of figure-painting that Mr. Winslow Homer has put his name to is his latest work, the “Cotton Pickers,” which provoked the admiration of the artists at the latest reception of the Century Club, and will soon find good quarters and pleasant society in a private gallery in London. Two slave women, fully developed specimens of their tawny race, are in a Carolina field. One of them grasps with her left arm a large bushel-basket already almost full of cotton, and stoops slightly to pick some more. She is unhappy and disheartened. The other, having filled an immense gunny-bag and slung it across her shoulder, stand erect, defiant and full of hatred for her adversaries. Away in the distance the eye rest upon the blue green of a low mountain range; on the right are the borders of a forest, and on the left a single pine shoots high above the ripe, white harvest.

The story is one not only worth telling, but one that can be told better by the artist than by the historians. Its deep meaning stares you in the face, as it should do to be worth anything. The composition is simple, unpretentious, natural, and the technical execution is brilliant and complete. The scene was painted outdoors, and it looks outdoors. Like most good things, also, the picture is finely original and alluring, and when across the sea, will do honor to the land that made it.