The Cotton Pickers

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The Cotton Pickers

United States, 1876
Paintings
Oil on canvas
24 1/16 x 38 1/8 in. (61.12 x 96.84 cm)
Acquisition made possible through Museum Trustees: Robert O. Anderson, R. Stanton Avery, B. Gerald Cantor, Edward W. Carter, Justin Dart, Charles E. Ducommun, Camilla Chandler Frost, Julian Ganz, Jr., Dr. Armand Hammer, Harry Lenart, Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, Mrs. Joan Palevsky, Richard E. Sherwood, Maynard J. Toll, and Hal B. Wallis (M.77.68)
Currently on public view:
Art of the Americas Building, floor 3 MAP IT
Art of the Americas Building, floor 3

Since gallery displays may change often, please contact us before you visit to make certain this item is on view.

Curator Notes

Apparently during the period 1874-76 Homer returned for visits to Petersburg, Virginia, where, as a correspondent illustrator, he had spent time during the final siege of the Civil War....
Apparently during the period 1874-76 Homer returned for visits to Petersburg, Virginia, where, as a correspondent illustrator, he had spent time during the final siege of the Civil War. He made studies for and may have painted there a series of watercolors and paintings of the life of rural blacks. Critics hailed him as the first artist to have seen the possibilities of this untapped source of subject matter. In a historical perspective one can see how exceptional these paintings are for their realism and sensitive treatment of their subjects in contrast to the caricatured portrayals Homer had joined others in painting during and after the Civil War period. The Cotton Pickers is quite simply the artist’s most monumental painting of the figure; that it should also be of black subjects is remarkable. In painting rural workers in such heroic terms, Homer was no doubt drawing upon a tradition well developed in various European countries by 1876, perhaps best known today in the work of Jean-Franqois Millet (1814-1875) and Jules Breton (1827-1906). Like them, Homer painted his rural workers as graceful majestic figures, but he chose as his subject unmistakably American materials. Homer brought the same respect and sympathy the French artists had for their nation’s peasants to bear on his representations of American blacks. Presented from a low vantage point, these powerful figures fill the canvas and dominate the composition. They are also portrayed as individuals, the figure on the right, gazing into the distance, a particularly poignant image of inner life and of aspiration. The Cotton Pickers was the climax of Homer’s early figural style, and one of his most profoundly original works.
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About The Era

After the Jacksonian presidency (1829–37), the adolescent country began an aggressive foreign policy of territorial expansion, exemplified by the success of the Mexican-American War (1846–48)....
After the Jacksonian presidency (1829–37), the adolescent country began an aggressive foreign policy of territorial expansion, exemplified by the success of the Mexican-American War (1846–48). Economic growth, spurred by new technologies such as the railroad and telegraph, assisted the early stages of empire building. As a comfortable and expanding middle class began to demonstrate its wealth and power, a fervent nationalist spirit was celebrated in the writings of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Artists such as Emanuel Leutze produced history paintings re-creating the glorious past of the relatively new country. Such idealizations ignored the mounting political and social differences that threatened to split the country apart. The Civil War slowed development, affecting every fiber of society, but surprisingly was not the theme of many paintings. The war’s devastation did not destroy the American belief in progress, and there was an undercurrent of excitement due to economic expansion and increased settlement of the West.
During the postwar period Americans also began enthusiastically turning their attention abroad. They flocked to Europe to visit London, Paris, Rome, Florence, and Berlin, the major cities on the Grand Tour. Art schools in the United States offered limited classes, so the royal academies in Germany, France, and England attracted thousands of young Americans. By the 1870s American painting no longer evinced a singleness of purpose. Although Winslow Homer became the quintessential Yankee painter, with his representations of country life during the reconstruction era, European aesthetics began to infiltrate taste.
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Label

Exhibition Label, 1997 ...
Exhibition Label, 1997 Traditionally Winslow Homer has been cast as a shy loner, working in relative isolation. However, his paintings from the Civil War to 1880 were anything but devoid of social content. The group of paintings of African Americans that he produced in the 1870s, of which The Cotton Pickers is the most important, resonate with political meaning. Homer was the first American consistently to paint African Americans without the prevailing attitudes of condescension and sentimentality. The date of this painting sheds light on its significance. Not only was 1876 the year of the country’s Centennial: more importantly for blacks it also marked the end of Reconstruction, as federal troops withdrew from the south. The Reconstruction era had been buoyed by hopes that the situation of former slaves would be drastically improved as they were freed and educated. Unfortunately that idealism was to be short-lived, as racism and bigotry emerged with vehemence. Homer still evinces the earlier hopefulness in his commanding painting of two female field laborers. His portrayal is sympathetic and positive: they are not being over or fatigued but rather stand erect, their strong bodies monumentalized against the sky. The woman on the right looks far into the distance, dreaming of a better future.
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Bibliography

  • Donahue, Kenneth. Los Angeles County Museum of Art Handbook. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1977.
  • Price, Lorna.  Masterpieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.
  • Donahue, Kenneth. Los Angeles County Museum of Art Handbook. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1977.
  • Price, Lorna.  Masterpieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.
  • Wilmeriding, John.  American Views; Essays on American Art.  Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • McKissack, Patricia C.  A Picture of Freedom :  The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl.  New York:  Scholastic Inc., 1997.
  • Little, Carl.  Winslow Homer: His Art, His Light, His Landscapes.  1997.
  • Groseclose, Barbara.  Nineteenth-Century American Art.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Conrads, Margaret C. Winslow Homer And The Critics:  Forging a National Art in the 1870s. Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  Looking Guide: Winslow Homer and the Critics.  Kansas City: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2001.
  • Matsumoto, Fumihisa.  Chapters in American Art, "Daybreak -- Time to Rest: Jacob Lawrence's Struggle".  Akashi Shoten Company, Ltd., 2001.
  • Lears, T.J. Jackson, ed.  American Victorians and Virgin Nature: Fenway Court, Vol. 29.  Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2002.
  • Vlach, John Michael.  The Planter's Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings.  Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
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  • Paton, Priscilla.  Abandoned New England: Landscape in the Works of Homer, Frost, Hopper, Wyeth, and Bishop.  Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2003.
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003.
  • Goldin, Marco and H. Barbara Weinberg. 2008. Pittura Americana del XIX secolo: atti del convegno. Treviso: Linea d'ombra Libri.
  • Severens, Martha R. More than a Likeness: the Enduring Art of Mary Whyte.  Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2013.
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