The Graduate Center - City University of New York

“Artists and Their Work” The Negro in American Art, New York Times (1880)

While many art critics ignored the racial themes in Winslow Homer’s painting of African Americans, this 1880 New York Times art review praises Homer’s representation of African Americans for tackling an underrepresented subject in the fine arts and avoiding caricature.

Date: April 9, 1880

Publisher: New York Times

Source: American Social History Project

That must be a morose critic who cannot find in three quarters of a thousand works of art some exceptions to the rule of commonplace which obtains in the exhibitions of the Academy. Two or three pictures by Winslow Homer go far toward compensating for the ruck of indifferent and inane canvases that crowd every room. Mr. Homer shows his originality in nothing so much as in his manner of painting negroes. What a singular thing it is that, although the African race is thoroughly distributed through North America, east of the Mississippi, from Canada to Texas, the art of America should have in the main failed to make use of negroes as an element of the picturesque in painting and sculpture. This is not to say that sculptors and painters have not tried their 'prentice hands on the negro type; the attempt had been often made; but the results for the most part have been nerveless and inane. There is excuse for a German who paints a negro quite devoid of the African Flavor, because negroes in Germany belong in the caravan of a circus, and are regarded very much as we might look on an Australian native. But to find the magazines of the United States over-run with pitiable caricatures of negroes, which do not contain the most evident characteristics of the race, is a surprising fact, and argues very ill for the powers of observation among our artists. Almost as poor as the negro of the draughtsmen for the monthlies are the usual attempts at painting the much-abused darky in oils. The painters who have had the with and initiative to recognize capacities for the use of color in negro pictures may be counted on one hand. The political history of the last 50 years may have a good deal to do with this phenomenon, but at present there seems no reason why the various colors and types of negroes, especially at the South, should not afford to painters excellent suggestions toward art, if it be no higher than genre painting.

Mr. Homer is one of the few artist who have the boldness and originality to make something out of the negro for artistic purposes. It need not be said that he has struck very deep into this vein or shows any signs of exhausting its capacity. On the contrary, he has merely ventured a little way, and if the results are remarkable, that cannot be fairly ascribed to the intrinsic richness of his out-turn, so much as to the apathy and ignorance of his brother artists. Several years ago, Mr. Homer had a large picture of a negro woman passing between tows of cotton-plants; recently, another somewhat like it was shown at a reception of the Union League. The pictures containing negroes here are of less extent of surface, but by no means less important; their smaller area offers better painting and more harmonious tones. The former two were open-air pictures; the present are interiors, and therefore lend themselves much more readily to successful treatment. No. 593, in the North-west Room, is the interior of a negro dwelling on a Sunday morning. An “aunty” and a group of young people are reading a Bible. In the East Room is No. 327—“Visit from the Old Mistress”—another interior with negro women and children. There is nothing dramatic in the scene, unless the naturally awkward position of the former slaves may be supposed to indicate a sense of the change which has taken place in their condition since the war. The negresses are better figures than the mistress, since the latter shows uncertainty in the treatment of the face; she is neither glad, nor contemptuous, nor kindly, nor, indeed, much of anything beyond a presentable old lady of refined appearance. Is it unreasonable to ask that a painter of Mr. Homer’s ability should have made a little more of this interesting situation between former mistress and former chattels?