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Slavery In American History Through The Prism Of Famous Artworks

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Slavery is a prominent part of American History and why America has been shaped the way it has been today. Many artists have captured the raw images of slavery in paintings during the time in order for us today to be better understand the inconceivable acts. The artwork artists have created leave us with a number of questions and many different interpretations. When we think of slavery, we think of African American individuals being treated poorly and brutalized for the color of their skin. It was far more than that. An interesting thing about history is the relationship between African American women and white women. In this day and age, we think of women as warm and nurturing individuals that hold a lot of love and compassion in their hearts. After studying images and literature, white women were almost just as horrible as the white men during the times of slavery.

Winslow Homer’s A Visit From the Old Mistress told an thought-provoking tale. Homer is famous for showing his emotions through his images and not showing action. When looking at A Visit From the Old Mistress, a white woman is pictured on the right with three African American women and a African American baby on the left. There was no action or anything climactic about the image. None of them look pleased to see each other. They had very stern and serious looks on their faces. The way the African American women were standing was also holding a demeanor that was unwelcoming. It was a very private moment in a private area, and nearly uncomfortable.

When analyzing the image, it appears that the African American women were wondering why the white woman had come to see them. It could be interpreted that she was asking them to come back and work for her. We know from research that the three African American women were once slaves of the white woman. Something that sticks out about this image is the difference between the white woman and the slave closest to her. The slave is dressed in clothing that is not considered lavish while the white woman is wearing her dark black dress and appears to have a clearer face than the others.

The woman on the far left has a composure one could barely read. She is also sitting down, not getting up for the Old Mistress. It sends a sense of mistrust and wariness. What was most fascinating about this image was that it was produced in 1876, ten years after the Civil War and abolition of slavery. The fact that the Old Mistress has returned may have sent red flags up to these women. What could be depicted of this image is up to its interpreters. Maybe the Old Mistress was just saying “hello”, maybe she wanted them to come work for her, maybe she had something to say to the African American women. We will never truly know. Regardless, none of these women look happy to see each other. While the picture remains neutral, the message is clear. They did not like each other.

Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave discusses the relationship her fellow slave Patsey had between the Master and Mistress. Northup described Patsey as a lighthearted and faithful woman who was always obedient. However, Patsey struggled the most out of all of the slaves. Her master would rape her, then the wife would get jealous and also beat her. Patsey could not win. Either way she was brutally beaten. Northup mentioned that nothing pleased the mistress more than watching Patsey be in pain. Relating it to the image, A Visit from the Old Mistress, shows just how much tension was actually built during those times. The situation was more than likely the same between the slaves and the mistress. The mistress probably brutalized them for whatever relation they sexually had with her husband. This image embodies the true feelings that the women had for each other.

Edmonia Lewis was the first African American woman sculptor in history. Her sculpt of Forever Free (The Morning of Liberty) raises a pleather of curiosity. It is known that Edmonia Lewis had damaging experiences with the black community. She was also about one quarter of the Chippewa heritage, which she was most proud of. When she speaks of the African American people, she calls them “my father’s people.” Her background is a quite different than most. She was born with the name “Wildfire.” Her mom passed away when she was four and then was raised by the Chippewa tribe until the tender age of twelve. In the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs discusses her life as a slave. Her mother had a foster sister that was white and they had grown up together. Her mother was considered her servant once they were older, but she was incredibly faithful to her. The mistress was very kind to her and promised to take care of Harriet and her siblings after she died. She kept her word. Harriet had felt free.

Lewis was a troubled child, as she was accused of poisoning two white classmates and of theft. She ended up being cleared of the charges, however she was unable to graduate college. Edmonia Lewis was dedicated to her artwork. Her and Harriet Hosmer spent a vast amount of time looking for marble in Italy. They were the epitome of strength when it came to women fighting to become artists who were taken seriously in the 19th century.

When you look at Forever Free, you see a man with curly hair free from his chains. With the curly hair, we assume he is a free African American, possibly her father. It is hard to tell what race the woman is. We can assume this is because Lewis identified slaves as potentially mixed, because she was a mixed race. The woman in the mold is kneeling down and still remains chained. Immediately, one might think this shape is depicted the celebration of the abolition of slavery. It is thought that the woman was giving thanks to the proclamation made by Lincoln. In this mold, it appears that Lewis views the man as free, but not the woman since this was in the time that women were still not taken seriously. White masters became African American masters after the abolition. Females remained men’s property.

When relating this mold to Harriet Jacobs’ experiences, I think about the time when Harriet felt free. Edmonia Lewis had clearly struggled with feeling free due to the mold she created with the African American woman bound to chains. Harriet Jacobs knew she was a slave, but she did not feel like one. Deep down, she knew that she was owned and she could not leave. African American women felt that way, even after slavery had been abolished. African American men had been able to be free, however, the women were still restricted and bound to their husbands. They were not allowed to leave. The mold also depicts the woman being bound and kneeling while the man was free of his chains.

Harriet Cany Peale painted Her Mistress’s Clothes in 1848. This image is instantly alarming and very straight forward. It appears that the mistress had dressed up the slave like a doll and wanted to play fun with her. Peale also made the slave look less attractive than the mistress. This image depicts the hierarchy of white women compared to African American women. The white woman looks rather young, but the slave looks significantly younger. We could assume it was a child of a house servant.

Another entity that stands out about this image is the placement of the white girl’s hand on the slave’s neck. It looks like she is attempting to strangle her, but there is a mirror in front of her. One could assume that the white girl is forcing her to look at herself and see what the white woman sees. One could also assume that the white girl is threatening the slave and letting her know that any displeasure could result in punishment.

Solomon Northup discusses in 12 Years a Slave that his Master Epps liked to have him play the violin and hold dances. His master would yell at the slaves to dance and if any of them took a break, they would get whipped and beaten. His mistress would scold her husband and threaten to leave, however she would also laugh too. These actions were contradicting and showed how conflicted the women felt during this time. They held a lot of hate in their heart for the slaves, but deep down they might have felt incredibly bad for them. This ties into this image, Her Mistress’s Clothes, because the mistress is dressing up the slave and showing her herself in in the mirror. She smiled upon looking at herself. This makes me feel like they had some type of relationship, maybe when they were younger girls because they knew innocence.

These three images are all connected because they encompass how African American’s were viewed during the times of slavery. In this day and age, we assume that they were treated poorly, but the artwork really shows us that this is what people actually thought of them. What was interesting was that they were all thought of the differently by people that had different walks of life. Edmonia Lewis was an African American woman, who still thought poorly of African Americans, but only because her father was a freed slave and she was raised by Native Americans. She felt that women were still bound to their masters, even after slavery was abolished. Harriet Cany Peale appeared to not necessarily have negative feelings towards slaves, but made the line in the sand clear if they were to ever anger her, she would not react well. Winslow Homer’s image was the most telling. You could see all the emotion in each individual’s face, white and African American. His image depicted so much emotion that it was hard to not feel uncomfortable while observing it. The image portrayed the exact tension that was the relationship between African American women and white women, slaves and mistresses.


Winslow Homer showed his emotion and the emotions of the slaves and white women in his image to the fullest extent. He made it clear that the white women and the African American women did not care for each other in the slightest. Their stance and facial expressions say it all in the uneventful image he created.

Some of them had nurturing aspects of their personalities to them, like Harriet Jacob’s mistress. The white woman in Her Mistress’s Clothes had some nurturing tendencies, however, she made it clear to not be disloyal to her. This was rare, though, to be nurturing. Most of the women were seen as cruel and each artist depicted it in their own way. Edmonia Lewis’ sculpt showed that she struggled with racial identity since she was an African American that grew up in a Native American tribe. However, she still felt that women did not have the same rights as men did after slavery was abolished and that clearly upset her.

When reading literature regarding slavery and slave’s experiences, then studying artwork created by individuals during the time, it ties everything together. The most unthinkable, almost unbelievable, acts are true. Each piece of literature and every image studied showed the most raw feelings of the time from every side of the spectrum; the slaves, the mistresses, the masters, and the outside world. We live in a world now where most women have nurturing souls and have a clear understanding of each other. However, it took a long time for them to become that way. During the times of slavery, it is clear that most mistresses had a hate in their heart for the women slaves. They treated them as poorly as their masters did. They were jealous of the slaves for receiving so much attention from their husbands, so they were beaten by the wives.

These pieces of art were great examples of how people felt about slavery. As horrible as it was, having these articles of evidence has helped America grow together and stop the hate that drove slavery to ever existing. It was such a prominent part of American history and seeing it from all points of view was absolutely incredible.

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