Thursday, March 03, 2016

From the Permanent Collection: Winslow Homer's “Taking Sunflower to Teacher”

By the end of his artistic career, Winslow Homer was considered by critics and the public among the greatest American painters. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Homer was apprenticed to a lithographer at nineteen. In 1859, he began to create illustrations for Harper’s Weekly in New York City, eventually covering the Civil War as a correspondent/artist. His experience as an illustrator led to his first two major series of paintings — images of the war and of fashionable life.

Winslow Homer, Taking Sunflower to Teacher, 1875

In 1875, Homer turned to a subject for which American painters were receiving positive critical reviews: the African American. These northern Reconstruction-era images of African Americans, although tinged with paternalism, provided viewers in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia the opportunity to reflect on the history of slavery in the United States and the debate over the role freed slaves would play in the postwar Republic. Homer had come of age in Boston as the abolitionist movement in the city intensified, and his time spent working for Harper’s and with the Army of the Potomac during the war brought Homer into direct contact with the everyday issues surrounding the position of freed slaves in the country’s civic life.

In this small, intimate format, Homer shows a lone black child, wearing partially torn and patched clothing, sitting on a wood log in a lush green forest. With his arms crossed at the wrists as if bound, the boy holds a large, brilliant sunflower in his right hand. A monarch butterfly, a symbol of freedom and of metamorphosis, rests on the boy’s left shoulder. The boy, shown in slight profile yet with erect posture, looks off into the distance as he awaits the start of school when he can give the flowery present to his instructor.

During the Reconstruction era, basic literacy skills were required in order for black citizens to secure their own rights, and schools dedicated to freed slaves emerged in many parts of the South even before the war ended. Throughout the region, communities of impoverished ex-slaves showed their commitment to education by imposing taxes on themselves to fund it, by donating their labor to construct and furnish schools, and by providing room and board for teachers. The November 9, 1867, edition of Harper’s Weekly included an article stating, “The alphabet is an abolitionist. If you would keep a people enslaved refuse to teach them to read.”

Homer’s figure in this watercolor represents the patronizing belief that the children of the post–slavery era could be instructed to “grow” into moral and civic responsibilities. An 1870 blurb in the New York Evangelist uses the sunflower as a metaphor for the growth of a child in a poem titled “Planting Himself to Grow” in which “little bright-eyed Willie” plants his feet in “the moist and cooling sand” and stands “so grave and dignified” adjacent to “a sunflower tall.” Homer’s boy stands as an allegory for all African Americans, who were seen as children like Willie, not yet “grown up” into the tasks of democracy, yet more than willing to learn. The sunflower in particular symbolized a willingness and steadfast commitment to the cause of literacy and citizenship among southern blacks. In life, literature, poetry, and popular culture, the sunflower always turns toward the sun as it travels across the sky. The sunflower came to symbolize constancy and virtue, and writers spoke of “the pride of the sunflower.”

In this watercolor, the boy clasps the sunflower in front of the luxuriant greens of the watercolor’s dense, forested backdrop, as if it protects him from the swirling miasma of Reconstruction-era politics and debates over the social position of freed slaves. “Taking Sunflower to Teacher” emphatically supports the notion of education to ensure African American participation in civic life. The child’s posture, poverty, sunflower and his look into the distance reflect the constant difficulties of making that education and contribution possible back in 1875.

Adapted from an essay by Paul Manoguerra in "One Hundred American Paintings," Georgia Museum of Art, 2011.

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