Winslow Homer first visited Virginia during the Civil War as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. He was so deeply moved by the plight of southern slaves that he returned to Petersburg, Virginia, in the mid-1870s. The paintings that resulted are remarkable for their sensitive portrayal of the painful uncertainties of African American life during Reconstruction. They answered the call for paintings of a national character but were highly unconventional. His works were set apart by the subtlety with which he told a story, avoiding the obvious narrative and sentimentality that usually accompanied pictures of everyday life. Moreover, unlike earlier painters, Homer did not deride African Americans nor resort to stereotypes.
One of the most powerfully expressive of this group of Homer’s paintings is "Sunday Morning in Virginia," set in a slave cabin. A neatly attired young teacher instructs three cold, frightened, impoverished children in reading the Bible. The older boy studies intently, representing the intense thirst for learning among the former slaves. With touches of brilliant red, Homer draws our attention to an elderly woman on the right, whose newfound freedom cannot compensate for a life of tremendous suffering and profound sadness.
In this painting, Homer eloquently addresses the politically charged issues of literacy and religion that were of great concern during the 1870s. With frankness and compassion, he encapsulates in a single picture all the aspirations and anxieties of a soul-searching era in United States history.