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Dressing for the Carnival

Winslow Homer

Dressing for the Carnival

Winslow Homer
  • Date: 1877
  • Style: Realism
  • Genre: genre painting
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Dimensions: 50.8 x 76.2 cm
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Having visited Virginia as an artist-correspondent during the Civil War, Homer returned there at least once during the mid-1870s, apparently to observe what had happened to the lives of former slaves during the first decade of Emancipation. The brilliant light and color of this scene, originally titled "Sketch–4th of July in Virginia," contradict its more solemn meaning. The central figure is being dressed as Harlequin, the clown and social outcast of European comic theater. The strips of cloth being sewn to his costume, however, derive from African ceremonial dress and from the festival of Jonkonnu, when slaves left their quarters to dance at their master's house. In the years following the Civil War, aspects of Jonkonnu became part of the celebration of the Fourth of July and Emancipation. Here, the pageantry of multihued costumes suggests a festive celebration, but it also reflects the dislocation of traditional African culture and the beginnings of its transformation into a new tradition.

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Dressing for the Carnival is an 1877 painting by the American painter, printmaker and illustrator Winslow Homer.

Homer painted African Americans, completely avoiding the stereotypes with which their collective image had been flooded during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The 1870s and 1880s produced innumerable images of African Americans at carnival time, mindless, jolly, condescending. But Homer's Dressing for the Carnival is unlike all of them: a deeply nuanced and, in the end, tragic scene of preparation for festivity. A group of people is preparing for the African-American festival known in the South as Jonkonnu and in the North as Pinkster. It entailed the costuming of a Harlequin-like figure or Lord of Misrule, and this Homer depicts: a man caparisoned in bright, tatterdemalion clothes, yellow, red, and blue, with a liberty cap on his head. Two women are sewing them on him. The one on the right extends her arm, pulling the long thread right through, in a gesture of compelling and somber gravity; she is a classical Fate, seen below the Mason-Dixon line. Next to her, but apart from her, gazing at the vesting ceremony with wonder, are some children, one of whom holds a Stars and Stripes (for by Reconstruction, the rituals of the Fourth of July had been overlaid on those of Jonkonnu). Homer makes us sense how far the hopes of emancipation still are from the realities of black life in the South.

This is a part of the Wikipedia article used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). The full text of the article is here →

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