Slavery & Reconstruction

The Landscape of Slavery (1857-1876)

Eastman Johnson, The Old Mount Vernon, 1857.  Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

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Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859.  Luce Center, New-York Historical Society.

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By bringing together nineteenth-century paintings from before and after the Civil War, we help students complicate the view that emancipation instantly changed everything for former slaves. We look at the paintings individually and in two different pairings—first, the two from 1857 and 1859 (above), then the one from 1859 alongside Winslow Homer’s 1876 A Visit from the Old Mistress. We also read short excerpts from Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Gradually, we gather and build on observations of the overlapping yet in many ways separate worlds blacks and whites created during centuries of slavery. By comparing and contrasting the settings and characters portrayed in the paintings and the narrative, we begin to envision continuity and change in the landscape and in relationships between blacks and whites as slavery ended and these once distinct worlds collided.

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Questions and Activities

Painting: The Old Mount Vernon, Eastman Johnson, 1857

Painting: Negro Life at the South, Eastman Johnson, 1859

Painting: A Visit from the Old Mistress, Winslow Homer, 1876 | VIEW

Text:  Harriet Jacobs, Excerpts from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl | DOWNLOAD PDF

NOTE:  Large color reproductions of all three paintings appear in Mack and Hoffius, The Landscape of Slavery:  The Plantation in American Art, 2008.  High-resolution versions of the images may also be requested from the museums that hold them.  Teachers pay no or very low reproduction charges, and staff members are efficient and friendly.  For more information on the book or on contacting the museums, scroll down to Additional Resources and click View More.

For questions we asked students as they considered the paintings, click View More.

Painting: The Old Mount Vernon, Eastman Johnson, 1857

We provided the artist’s name and the date and size of the painting at the outset.

We asked the students to look at the painting silently and to write down the things they noticed.  (Sometimes we challenged the students to write down a certain number of things — “See if you can write down at least five” or “at least ten.”)

We then invited each student in turn to contribute an observation, asking:

  • What do you notice?
  • Where do you see that in the painting?

At this point in the discussion, we concentrated on gathering a variety of ideas and giving each student a chance to speak (not yet on discussing questions or discussing any one observation in depth).

We then continued with observations as people volunteered them, inviting students to respond when someone commented on something they also were thinking about.  We tried to offer them as many opportunities as possible to respond to each other’s ideas.  For example, we asked:

  • Who sees that in the same way or in a different way?
  • Who wants to add to that?
  • What do other people think about that?

We then asked:

  • What puzzles or confuses you?
  • What do you see in the painting that makes you wonder about that?

We invited other students to contribute their thoughts about the questions and puzzles:

  • When you look at the painting with that question in mind, what do you notice?
  • When you look at the painting with that question in mind, what further thoughts do you have?

We also recorded the puzzles and questions on the board.

Painting: Negro Life at the South, Eastman Johnson, 1859

We repeated the process above with the second painting.

Two paintings: The Old Mount Vernon and Negro Life at the South, 1857 and 1859

We then placed the two paintings side by side.  We asked:

  • What do you notice when you look at these paintings together?
  • Who sees that in the same way or in a different way?
  • Who wants to add to that?
  • What do other people think about that?
  • What puzzles or confuses you when you look at these paintings together?
  • What do you see in the paintings that makes you wonder about that?
  • When you look at the paintings with that question in mind, what do you notice?
  • When you look at the paintings with that question in mind, what further thoughts do you have?

Painting: A Visit from the Old Mistress, Winslow Homer, 1876

We repeated the process described above (under The Old Mount Vernon) with the third painting.

Two paintings: Negro Life at the South and A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1859 and 1876

We repeated the process described above (under The Old Mount Vernon and Negro Life at the South) with this new pairing.

Homework: Write at least a full page in your notebook comparing one of the people in Harriet Jacob’s narrative, or one of the figures in one of Eastman Johnson’s paintings, with a character from Homer’s painting.  From the evidence you have, what seems similar and what seems different about their circumstances, situations, and concerns? Use details from the reading and painting and your timeline to support your ideas.

To read student responses, scroll down to Student Responses and click View More.

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Student Responses

Painting: The Old Mount Vernon, Eastman Johnson, 1857

LOGAN:  The people in the back might be working.  I’m not sure; it’s hard to tell.  Behind the thing with the pillars in the middle — it’s like a bridge between the two houses, it’s interesting how they connected them … interesting that there would be a connection between the two houses, if indeed it is a connection, because that’s a slave house.

CLARA:  In the middle of the two main houses — those things with columns — I think is a courtyard, but there isn’t [a courtyard] between the other two [the second and smallest houses].  The left house is obviously much nicer.  The courtyard is for the people in the nicer house.

For more student responses, click View More.

ROSE:  The guy in the doorway is looking at the painter.

ANNELIESE:  I think it’s the back of the house, because slave houses.…

OTHERS:  It’s the side.

ANNELIESE:  We’re not seeing the front part.

MARTYN:  We’re seeing the right side of the front door.

JULIA:  Whoever painted it was more focused on these two houses, especially this one; it’s in the center.  You would think they would want to show the fanciest house but they don’t.

BETHANY:  [You can tell] they’re focused on that house because [it’s in the center] and the little house is behind the fence, and [because of] how the person sitting in the doorway draws your attention.

Painting: Negro Life at the South, Eastman Johnson, 1859

BEN:  It looks like the whole outer wall is torn off.

LOGAN:  People seem comfortable even though they’re of different races — there’s a black man talking casually with a white woman — above them, a dark-skinned black woman with a lighter baby.

LEILA:  There’s a white woman coming through, she looks sort of out of place.

FRANCESCA:  Without the people the house would look abandoned — there’s grass on the roof, it’s really run down —

OTHERS:  That’s not grass — it’s moss!

ALEX:  They have an outdoor fireplace.

KAYLANNA:  There are no windows in the doors.

BEN:  What is this place?  It is so run-down.  There’s a rat in the window and moss growing on the roof, which shows the wood is rotten and waterlogged.  It looks like a whole wall is torn off, or knocked down.  It is in bad shape.  All the people are black, except for one person who lives in a nice house next to the bad one.

DAKOTA:  There’s another house connected to the damaged house.  It’s a nice house a white woman’s coming out.

NYLA:  There was a nice house and an old breaking house which made me think slavery.

MACKENZIE:  I think that the relationship between the two houses, is that the fancy house is the slave owners house, and the one that has the broken windows and moss on it is the slaves house.  I think this because, the houses are right next to each other, and of course the slave owner needs to have his slaves close to him so that he can keep an eye on them.

Two paintings:  The Old Mount Vernon and Negro Life at the South, 1857 and 1859

RACHEL:  Some other things about the people in both of the paintings seemed very interesting to me.  They looked like they could be the same people but their personalities seemed to change slightly.  In Old Mount Vernon the people looked pleasant but they still seemed like they were working and had to be serious.  In painting two, the people looked happy and carefree.  One side of the yellow house (if the paintings are the same place) could be where they could be themselves and where they have more privacy to act how they like, and the other side could be where they have to hide how they really want to feel like.  This could be kind of like the poem, “We Wear the Mask” because in one circumstance or place, the people in the paintings are happy and in one place, they are not.  The paintings have different feeling, different attitude and since the artist is the same one, it could be his choice to paint totally opposite perspectives that show all sides of the house.

Painting: A Visit from the Old Mistress, Winslow Homer, 1876

ALEX:  It has an unhappy mood.

TEACHER:  What makes you feel it has an unhappy mood?

ALEX:  The white woman looks serious.  The former slaves are bunched together defensively because there is strength in numbers.  They look a little nervous.

MACKENZIE:  One woman is holding a child.

KAYLANNA:  They don’t look happy to see her [the white woman].

TEACHER:  What makes you think they don’t look happy to see her?

KAYLANNA:  They don’t have smiles on their faces.

TAVI:  The [white] woman looks more grand.  She’s taller than them all, and she’s wearing complicated clothes and a complicated hairstyle.

JONIQUA:  All the black people looks afraid of the white people.

TEACHER:  What makes you think that?

JONIQUA:  I thought the baby was another person, in the corner, against the wall [shrinking away from the white woman].

TEACHER:  Anything else that makes you feel that?

JONIQUA:  The one on the stool looks kind of annoyed.

OLIVIA:  I was wondering why the mistress came to see them.

JACK:  She’s there for a fake apology.  “Oh, sorry, guys, slavery was bad.”  But it’s not real.

TEACHER:  What makes you think it’s not real?

JACK:  She looks like a strict, old, grumpy white woman who looks mad at the 13th amendment.

NEIL:  It was painted eleven years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.

KARLTON:  They look like — her, the white lady, she looks like a slave owner, she looks mean, and they’re all quiet, innocent, and scared.  The baby looks like she wants to cry.  They’re thinking, “She’s so mean, why?”

ANNELIESE:  No one looks happy.  Maybe the white woman was the slave owner.  She might be back to see them, and they’re not happy to see her.

CLARA:  … Because she’s white, she’s the old mistress coming to see them, bringing them something.  I think it’s something good.  In the [reproduction in the] book it looks like she’s smiling.

TIM:  I just have a hunch that this lady’s husband is dead.  He died in the Civil War.  On her face is a major loss.

OTHERS:  A major loss of slaves.

LOGAN:  Maybe the old mistress is saying that she’ll offer them a deal, a bargain of sorts.  She will pay them if they come back to work for her.  This would not be considered slavery, would it?  And she’d still have black people to serve her, and they’d get some money for their efforts.  The [ex-]slaves look wary, though.  Either she hasn’t informed them of the bargain yet, or they don’t trust her.

Two paintings: Negro Life at the South and A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1859 and 1876

RYAN:  There’s one white person in each picture, all the way to the right.

FRANCESCA:  The white woman may be visiting in both.

NYLA:  Both the houses are not in the best condition.

?:  This one [Negro Life at the South] is happy.

TEACHER:  And for this one [A Visit from the Old Mistress], “strict” was one word you used.

JACK:  [Supplying another word] “Haughty.”

LEILA:  In both of them the number of black people is more than the number of white people.

JULIAN:  [To the teacher] Were these both [painted] in the same place?

TEACHER:  All I know is the captions [reads the captions].

JULIAN:  Oh, I thought that [Negro Life at the South] was 1876.

ALEX:  It seems like the dates of the pictures should be switched around.  That [Negro Life at the South, painted before the Civil War] looks like freedom.  They’re having a lot of fun.  That [A Visit from the Old Mistress, painted more than ten years after the war] looks awkward, unhappy, defensive.

NEIL:  The mood is really different in each.  That one [A Visit from the Old Mistress] is dark, sad, and depressing.

ELENA:  [A Visit from the Old Mistress] is meant to be less appealing.  In [Negro Life at the South], it’s easier to see more detail, you get the story.  [A Visit from the Old Mistress] is not very colorful and has a weird texture.  It’s not as fun to look at.

TIM:  Yeah.

NEIL:  That actually is my favorite—you get the most out of it.  That’s probably what it was really like at the time, not everybody smiling and happy.

TEACHER:  [Asks him to say more about what he thinks it was really like at the time]

NEIL:  No huge changes had happened yet.  They were getting paid, but not much.  They didn’t have equal rights yet.

TEACHER:  So you prefer this one for what it’s conveying that’s true to the time.

ROSE:  You would think [Negro Life at the South] would be not happy because there was still slavery.

NEIL:  [A Visit from the Old Mistress] showed the real, deep current of what was going on, instead of the other [Negro Life at the South], which is stereotyped.

TIM:  [In A Visit to the Old Mistress] They look like they don’t have anything in them.  They look hollow and bored with life.

ELENA:  Negro Life at the South has a lot more dimension than the other one.  The other one [A Visit from the Old Mistress] looks flat.

LEIGH:  In [both] Negro Life and The Old Mistress, there’s one white woman, and everyone else in both of the pictures is black.  One thing I noticed that’s different between the two paintings is in Negro Life, no one is paying any attention to the white lady at all.  In the other painting, they are very attentive and focused on the white woman.  …  The Old Mistress could be set in a place where even though slavery was over, there was still a lot of racism going on.  The reason I think this is because of the way their faces look in the painting.  They don’t look happy, and they’re all paying very close attention to the white lady, even the little kid that one woman is holding.  …  From the expression on the Old Mistress’s face, I think she feels like she has control over the blacks….

RACHEL:  A Visit from the Old Mistress was painted in the year 1876 which is eleven years after slavery ended.  Though you would think that the people in this painting would be so much more joyful than Negro Life at the South because there wouldn’t be slavery, but in fact it is the opposite so I wonder which child would have the rougher life after all.  If slavery was still in effect, the child in Negro Life at the South would have probably been … a slave, but what I don’t get about the paintings was that the moods of the paintings switched, and by how happy the child [in Negro Life] and the people around her looked, you wouldn’t even assume that she and people around her had anything to do with slavery.  On the other hand, the child and people who were in the painting that was painted eleven years after slavery ended, still look like slavery is somehow inflicting pain and poverty on them.

ROSE:  I am going to compare the white woman in Negro Life at the South to the old mistress in Homer’s painting….  If these paintings were painted at the same time, the two women would have the same role in life.  If they were both dated before the Civil War, like Johnson’s, they would both be slave owners, and if they were dated after the Civil War, they would both be former slave owners.  You could even say that the woman in Johnson’s painting is a past version of the woman in Homer’s, but I don’t think they are the same person.  …  But they might be the same age, because Johnson’s is painted 17 years before Homer’s, so if Johnson’s woman is 17 years younger than Homer’s woman in the paintings … they could be the same age.

OLIVIA:  Unlike the other people in A Visit from the Old Mistress, the mistress is happy and positive.  Her lips curve into a gentle, pitiful smile which gives a feeling of happiness.  Her posture seems very dignified.  Just the way she holds herself makes me think she has money.  Her hair is done neatly, her clothes look expensive, and she’s very clean.  She expects to be given authority.

The young woman in Negro Life at the South is in the corner of the painting but is still very noticeable.  She rushes into the too-happy-to-be-real scene with urgency.  She expects to be heard but probably isn’t someone with full authority.  With her left hand, she holds her huge skirts out of the way of her barely visible feet.  Her right hand holds the edge of the wooden door way, supporting herself.  Her torso leans towards the rest of the scene.  She seems gentle, rich, and innocent.

JULIA:  I know that in A Visit from the Old Mistress the baby is free because it was painted after slavery.  And in Johnson’s [painting], in my perspective, the artist was trying to make it look like the slaves were happy and free enough.  This was before slavery ended.  …  I think they are also different because Negro Life at the South is fictional since the slaves look happy and free before slavery ended.  … Even though [A Visit from the Old Mistress] was after slavery they were still scared because people still hated them, so I think that sadly it is more realistic.

BETHANY:  Another difference is that the lady in Negro Life at the South seems more content and calm, where the lady in A Visit from the Old Mistress seems stiff, angry or upset, cold and awkward.  This makes me think that the lady in Negro Life at the South is more comfortable in her surroundings, unlike the woman in A Visit from the Old Mistress who seems uncomfortable or self conscious in the place she is at.

KAYLANNA:  I think it’s weird that one painting that was when slavery was over looks so mean, scared, and people look frightened and scary and worried, but the other painting that was when slavery was happening looked so nice, joyful and fun, colorful.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  …  And why is it that the one white person in the Negro Life picture is not scary, mean, or rude or doesn’t look like [she is] about to hurt someone, but in the other picture the one white person looks rude and mean and looks like she is about to hurt someone.  Maybe in [A Visit from the Old Mistress] … the Old Mistress still wants slavery to go on and she probably threatens them to do what she says.  Maybe she’s doing it illegally.  …

Text:  Harriet Jacobs, Excerpts from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

RYAN:  She hasn’t reached her dream yet.

TEACHER:  What’s her dream?

RYAN:  To sit with her children in her own home.

FRANCESCA:  “But God so orders circumstances so as to keep me with my friend Mrs. Bruce.”  … For some reason she has to stay with Mrs. Bruce.

RYAN:  Circumstances.

MADDIE:  Maybe she owes her a favor.

TEACHER:  What makes you think she owes her a favor?

MADDIE:  Mrs. Bruce helped her get free.

LOGAN:  Maybe Mrs. Bruce bought her on purpose to free her.

TAVI:  She is free, but still doesn’t live in her own house.  She serves Mrs. Bruce, but Mrs. Bruce doesn’t make her do a lot of stuff.

LUYA:  She owes Mrs. Bruce.  She could leave Mrs. Bruce, but Mrs. Bruce has done a lot for her.  She wants to repay her.

MADDIE:  I think Mrs. Bruce buys Harriet.  I think that then she will set her free.

TAVI:  I think that when Harriet said she was free, it was Mrs. Bruce that freed her by becoming her slave owner.  Harriet isn’t in her own house like she wished, but she isn’t being treated like a slave anymore because Mrs. Bruce is treating her like a real person.  Harriet said that she was bound to Mrs. Bruce by love, duty, and gratitude.  Love because she loves her as a really good friend, duty because she is her “slave,” and gratitude for giving her freedom.

ORLANDO:  The white lady in the painting [A Visit from the Old Mistress] looks mean [but] Mrs. Bruce she is a very nice person.  She went out of her way to save a black lady who has children.  She is a very trust worthy person.  This is the difference between Mrs. Bruce and that mean looking lady.

NEIL:  Both women were former slaves.  Harriet is a run-away and the woman in the picture [A Visit from the Old Mistress] is a freed slave.  …  A big difference is that Harriet Jacob’s narrative takes place in the 1840s and 1850s and [A Visit from the Old Mistress] is painted in 1876, some 20-30 years later.  Another big difference is that Harriet Jacobs is “free” because she ran away and the woman from [A Visit from the Old Mistress] is free because of the 13th amendment which effectively ended slavery in the United States.  What the 13th amendment didn’t do, is effectively stop the hardships of life for the now freed slaves which Homer’s painting shows.

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Teacher Narrative

Two paintings: The Old Mount Vernon and Negro Life at the South, 1857 and 1859

In The Old Mount Vernon, the students notice many differences between the “obviously much nicer” house and “the back of the house” where “the person sitting in the doorway draws your attention.”  Similarly, they repeatedly contrast the two buildings in Negro Life at the South:  “Fancy house,” “breaking house.”  “Nice house,” “crappy house.”  One student adds that while the other house is “nicer,” the black people’s house “feels homey” even though it needs repair.  A number of students articulate how the warmth and liveliness of the scene contrast with what would otherwise be the emptiness and devastation of the background.

For more teacher reflections, click View More.

It is as if the same divisions that steal from slaves the sustenance and the comforts produced by their labor accidentally define separate spaces in which slaves then create their own communities and lives.  As students examine these paintings, they not only point out the divisions, but also notice and discuss the black spaces and communities and the artist’s choice to focus on them.

More teacher reflections coming soon….

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Additional Resources

Angela D. Mack & Stephen G. Hoffius, The Landscape of Slavery:  The Plantation in American Art.  Columbia, S. C.:  University of South Carolina Press, 2008. The Old Mount Vernon, Negro Life at the South, and A Visit from the Old Mistress appear on pages 106, 108, and 117 (detail, page 141). The painting we study in subtopic 9 (Reflection & Assessment), Aspects of Negro Life:  From Slavery through Reconstruction, is on page 143.  The book, which also contains reproductions of many other relevant and interesting paintings, can be borrowed through public libraries.

For other ways to access high-quality reproductions of the paintings, and for a link to the digitized book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, click View More.

Eastman Johnson’s painting The Old Mount Vernon is held by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which runs the estate and gardens at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.  To request a higher-resolution image of the painting, please visit this page (once there, click “Photo Services” to access their email address). Be sure to mention that you are a teacher so that they can correctly calculate any fees.

Eastman Johnson’s painting Negro Life at the South (sometimes called Old Kentucky Home or Life in the South) is held by the New-York Historical Society. The inventory number of the painting is S-225.  To obtain a higher-resolution image from their rights and reproductions department, call 212-873-3400, ext. 282, or email rightsandrepro@nyhistory.org. Be sure to mention that you are a teacher so that they can correctly calculate any fees.

Winslow Homer’s painting A Visit from the Old Mistress is held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum offers a large digital image of the painting here. Their rights and reproductions policy, available here, permits educational use of the image.

Harriet Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  Boston:  Published for the Author, 1861. The events of the narrative took place much earlier (those described in our excerpt took place in 1852).  We read this excerpt:  pp. 298 (first paragraph break) – 299 (first paragraph break), pp. 302 (last paragraph break) – 303 (paragraph break).  You can browse or download the entire book here.

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Teacher Forum

Please post your ideas and questions about this subtopic and investigation in the Teacher Forum. We will then also post a copy here for visitors to this page to read.