Winslow Homer, Taking Sunflower to Teacher

Winslow Homer, Taking Sunflower to Teacher, 1875, watercolor on paper, 7-5/8 x 6-3/16 inches (Georgia Museum of Art)

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Homer's Sunflower to Teacher

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Key points

  • By depicting this young boy with a flower meant for his teacher, Winslow Homer captures a moment of possibility and transformation for Black American youth in the Reconstruction period following the U.S. Civil War. The sunflower, butterfly, and other details symbolize growth and transition, made possible through emancipation and federal legislation empowering Black people with rights to citizenship and voting (codified through the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution). At the same time, on a more local level, African American communities were creating their own opportunities for formal education, something that had been unavailable to them as enslaved laborers.
  • Homer employs sentimentality in the portrayal of the boy in this setting, drawing on a strategy used in abolitionist imagery and literature since before the Civil War to elicit sympathy. In 1875, such a strategy was still necessary because efforts by local and state governments as well as self-empowered vigilante groups actively opposed the ways that Black people were experiencing progress in American society and civic life. While the sentimentality of the image is somewhat patronizing, by portraying the humanity of the young boy Homer importantly deviates from the caricatured and demeaning portrayals of African Americans of the time. 
  • This watercolor painting is small, measuring only about 7.5 x 6.2 inches in size. Information regarding who would have seen this image in the 19th and early 20th century (before it entered the collection of the Georgia Museum of Art in 1945) is not readily available. However, the colors in the image are still quite vibrant, indicating that the painting has been well cared for, with reduced exposure to light that would have caused the colors to fade over time.

Go deeper

Read more about Homer’s watercolor, Taking Sunflower to Teacher, from the blog of the Georgia Museum of Art

Learn more about the experience of African Americans during Reconstruction, as conveyed in Thomas Nast’s 1874 political cartoon, “The Union As It Was—Worse Than Slavery” 

Explore another image by Winslow Homer of Black Americans post-emancipation, his 1866 painting Army Teamsters 

More to think about

Although this watercolor painting is not large, the subject is one that it seems Homer has thought deeply about, given the attention to detail and level of symbolism in the image. How do you imagine this small, intimate picture might have been viewed in the late 19th century? How can small, singular acts like this one contribute to larger causes, like the ongoing struggle for equality and rights for Black Americans?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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