Winslow Homer was born in Boston, the second of three sons of Henrietta Benson, an amateur watercolorist, and Charles Savage Homer, a hardware importer. As a young man, he was apprenticed to a commercial lithographer for two years before becoming a freelance illustrator in 1857. Soon he was a major contributor to such popular magazines as Harper’s Weekly; in 1859 he moved to New York to be closer to the publishers that commissioned his illustrations and to pursue his ambitions as a painter.
We frankly confess that we detest his subjects...he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial...and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded.
The brilliant light and color of this scene, originally titled "Sketch–4th of July in Virginia," contradict its more solemn meaning. The central figure is being dressed as Harlequin, the clown and social outcast of European comic theater. The strips of cloth being sewn to his costume, however, derive from African ceremonial dress and from the festival of Jonkonnu, when slaves left their quarters to dance at their master's house. In the years following the Civil War, aspects of Jonkonnu became part of the celebration of the Fourth of July and Emancipation. Here, the pageantry of multihued costumes suggests a festive celebration, but it also reflects the dislocation of traditional African culture and the beginnings of its transformation into a new tradition.