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Weaning the Calf (work of art)

Artwork Info

Winslow Homer
24 1/8 x 38 1/4 inches (61.3 x 97.2 centimeters)


Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

Object Number
American to 1910

Key Ideas about this Work of Art

  • In this painting a Black boy struggles to pull a calf away from its mother while two white boys watch. The artist created visual contrast between the young figures. The Black boy is working. He is dressed in tattered clothing, without shoes. The white boys are inactive, observing, and dressed in nicer clothing. A clear line of shadow separates the Black boy from the two white boys.
  • Weaning the Calf was painted during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Slavery had ended, but wide-spread racism continued and social classes remained divided. It was a time of struggle for Black people, who were trying to integrate into white-dominated society.
  • There are two trees in the background of this painting. The elm tree represents freedom (a symbol dating from the American Revolution and the famous Liberty Tree in Boston). The oak tree represents the emancipation of enslaved people during the Civil War. 
  • Winslow Homer is known for his paintings of American life and scenery. His work explores themes of struggle and uncertainty, often between humans and nature.

Learn More

After the Civil War, Homer, a white artist renowned for his penetrating explorations of conflict, painted rural scenes that subtly communicated the era’s race relations. In Weaning the Calf, these tensions arise through visual juxtapositions. A Black child, barefoot and dressed in tatters, struggles to separate a calf from its mother, as two neatly dressed white children passively observe his labor. A distinct shadow cuts through the foreground, physically separating the figures.

Longstanding symbols of American liberty, the oak and elm tree in the distance further invite us to consider the freedom and self-determination of Homer’s central figure. Taken together, these elements underscore how racism and class divisions continued to structure American life during the Reconstruction era.


tags: farm, landscape, force, children, animals

Additional Resources

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Resources for Students


  • An oil painting of a farm scene with animals and three human figures. One boy is shown pulling a rope that is tied to a calf. Two other boys stand side by side, watching from a distance. A cow, a fence, chickens, two large hay bales, and two trees are depicted in the background.

    Weaning the Calf