"A Visit from the Old Mistress"

Winslow Homer Home

portrait of winslow homer

Oliver Ingraham Lay, Winslow Homer, 1865. Oil on canvas, National Academy Museum and School

Early Life

Homer was regarded by many as one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century. He worked as a freelance illustrator during his early life and later visited the warfront during the Civil War. His first important paintings were of Civil War subjects. Paintings like A Visit from the Old Mistress represented the destructive conflict in the Western world during the Civil War. A number of his paintings depicted the war, including Prisoners from the Front and Veteran in a New Field. These paintings were reflective of the changes in the ideas that Americans had about the war, and what it really meant to the nation.


When Homer was six, his family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, he enjoyed a happy country childhood. His artistic inclinations were encouraged by his mother, an amateur painter. Most of his work involved copying the designs of other artists, but within a few years he was submitting his own drawings for publication.

the visit from the old mistress

Winslow Homer, A Visit from the Old Mistress, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1876.

About the Painting

A Visit from the Old Mistress is an oil painting showcasing the great strength, courage, and respect of formerly enslaved women towards themselves rather than their former mistress. Their dwelling is a shack and their clothing shabby, but they own the space. Their former mistress recognizes this as she is in totally dark clothing, mourning the loss of her former slaves. However she seems to be trying to remind these women that she still holds an advantage over them. However, they show no sign of compliance or submissive behavior or body language despite spending most of their lives enslaved. The old mistress also presents how many white Southeners were "living with new rules," and still didn't accept to the new social order.

Background on Painting

As slavery started to rupture at the end of the Civil War, black Southerners started to gain protection from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. This caused chaos and grief to course through the lives of white southerners opposed to these increased freedoms for former slaves. The Civil War was perhaps the most controversial topic in American history. This was the war behind the chaos, bloodshed, and attempted reconstruction between the Northern and Southern states. It also resulted in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments that granted the former slaves freedom, power, and independence, but causing conflict to arise within the former slave owners as seen in this painting.