Dressing for the Carnival: Winslow Homer

Dressing for the Carnival: Winslow Homer

Dressing for the Carnival is a genre oil on canvas painting by American artist Winslow Homer. It was painted in 1877 in the American Realist style and shows a scene from the life of African Americans in the South during carnival season.

Homer’s vision of American life, especially as touching upon black Americans, was exceptional in its age for its sensitivity. Rather than indulge his white patrons’ likely expectation that African Americans should appear as jovial and essentially unserious characters, Homer shows them as they are at a moment of collective and intimate celebration.

For what we are looking at in this oil is a scene that precedes an African American festival known in the South as Jonkonnu. The central figure dressed up in tattered but clownishly colored attire is the leading comedic figure of the carnival, the equivalent of the Harlequin in European carnival and theatre.

The upper part of his costume, stark yellow on the front and blood-red on the back, draws all the attention in a composition in which the paint bears the dullness of Homer’s many late-afternoon landscapes.

Two women around the main comedian are sewing the tatters of his costume into place. Children, all except one situated in the right-hand half of the painting, are looking on with strong interest. Notably, one of the children on the right, a boy, is carrying a smaller child on his back.

The scene, we readily realize, is of a serious, though comedic, endeavor conducted by a group. Except for the boy carrying a child on his back, not one of the other eight characters shows even the shadow of a smile. As is often the case with traditional rituals, they are attended to by most with a strong impression of duty. The time for fun is later on.

To a white audience habituated to stereotypes about inconstancy and culturelessness, it is precisely one such display of knowing seriousness and devotion to collective values that could have induced a more thoughtful appraisal of a community that was just then beginning to acquire the franchise in one-half of the United States.

Structurally, it can be seen that the figures — again with the exception of the lone child to the left, who is also removed at some distance — constitute a single procession left-to-right, with the comedian at its head as the final figure with his face to the “direction of travel”. The painting has therefore a perceptible rightward dynamism.

In remarkable homage to the American republic and its constitutional principles of liberty, the lead figure is wearing a liberty cap, a classical attribute adopted by the American Revolutionaries as a symbol of democratic freedom and then popularised by the French Jacobins. Equally so, the child that is being carried is to be seen holding a small American flag.

It is the age of post-war Reconstruction in the South when the civil rights of non-whites begin to be tentatively enforced. The year in which Winslow Homer brought his painting to the conclusion — 1877 — was to be marked retrospectively as the end of Reconstruction. That year, Union troops were withdrawn from the last Southern states in which they served to enforce Reconstruction efforts.

Winslow Homer’s Dressing for the Carnival is located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in the United States of America.

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