Alexis L. Boylan
assistant professor of art history,
University of Tennessee
I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to “Landscape of Slavery,” for several reasons. First off, to be included with such an esteemed group of scholars was an honor. We also represent a diversity of methodologies in regard to how we approach images. This is an amazing moment in terms of the study of art history, with certain scholars emphasizing the history that these images illustrate, while others emphasize the intentions of the artist, and some spend more time considering how the these images shape our culture and how audiences have absorbed or rejected the ideas about race, nationalism, and landscape offered by these objects. This catalogue encourages the reader to not only interrogate the images, but to also interrogate the questions we ask of images.
I was also excited to have the opportunity to write about Winslow Homer’s A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876. I had taught this painting for years and it is an image that always haunted me. I have yet to really decide for myself what has happened in this small room between these people. It is a typical work by Homer in the sense that he refuses to give simple, trite, or smug resolutions to the hard work of repairing the country after the Civil War. He wants the viewer to hover on the awkward, and heavy weight of history that all bodies carry.
I kept this painting in mind when I went recently to the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum in Atlanta, GA where Mitchell wrote her 1936 bestseller Gone With the Wind. The book itself was a bit of a fluke; Mitchell had an injury that limited her mobility and she wrote the book as a distraction to pass the time. And yet this book, perhaps more than other work of art, cemented a particular version of plantation life into the American psyche. It is a more simplistic image than the one Homer paints; in Mitchell’s South everyone knows their place and the enslaved stand by and protect their mistresses instead of staring at them coldly. But Mitchell’s work keeps the reader trapped in a made-up past, looping in a racist, nostalgic haze eternally. But Homer, I think, offers some hope. For while all of his figures stand almost frozen, we have to imagine at some point, soon perhaps, someone will have to make a move, the moment of tension will have to be broken, and we can all move forward again.