This deftly executed preparatory drawing for a painting is one of several works that Winslow Homer created about 1875 depicting an African American boy engaged in a tug-of-war of wits and brawn with a calf. A faint outline indicates that the artist experimented with the position of the calf’s tail before settling on a final pose expressive of the animal’s indignation.
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910). The Unruly Calf, circa 1875–76. Graphite and white opaque watercolor on blue-gray wove paper, 4 11/16 x 8 1/2 in. (11.9 x 21.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 24.241
Homer’s images were praised by contemporary critics for their sympathetic and naturalistic treatment of blacks—a striking departure from the racist caricatures that proliferated in nineteenth-century visual culture. While rural children were a favorite subject of the artist, this particular work could also be a metaphor for the struggles of African Americans for self-determination during Reconstruction.