Self-portrait of Eastman Johnson, 1863
July 29, 1824|
|Died||May 5, 1906
Eastman Johnson (July 29, 1824 – April 5, 1906) was an American painter, and Co-Founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, with his name inscribed at its entrance. Best known for his genre paintings, paintings of scenes from everyday life, and his portraits both of everyday people and prominent Americans such as Abraham Lincoln, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His later works often show the influence of the 17th-century Dutch masters whom he studied while living in The Hague, and he was even known as The American Rembrandt in his day.1
Johnson was born in Lovell, Maine, the eighth and last child of Philip Carrigan Johnson (Secretary of State of Maine 1840, and Mary Kimball Chandler (born in New Hampshire, October 18, 1796, married 1818). His eldest brother, Commodore Philip Carrigan Johnson Jr. (father of Vice Admiral Alfred Wilkinson Johnson) was followed by his beloved sisters Harriet, Judith, Mary, Sarah, Nell and his brother Reuben. Eastman grew up in Fryeburg and Augusta, where the family lived at Pleasant Street and later at 61 Winthrop Street.2
His career as an artist began when his father—the owner of several businesses, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Maine (ancient Free and Accepted Masons) (1836–1844), and Secretary of State for Maine (1840)—was appointed by US President James Polk, after his patron the Governor of Maine John Fairfield entered the US Senate, as Chief Clerk in the Bureau of Construction, Equipment, and Repair of the Navy Department. From 1853, the family lived at 266 F Street, between Thirteenth and Fourteenth Streets and just a few blocks from the White House and the Navy Department Offices, Washington DC.3 His father apprenticed him in 1840 to a Boston lithographer.
Beginning in 1844, he made crayon portraits, including John Quincy Adams, and Dolly Madison.He moved to Washington, D.C., and then Boston in 1846.4 In 1849, he moved to Düsseldorf, Germany where many artists, including many Americans, studied art,56 and took part in the Düsseldorf school of painting. There in January 1851, he was accepted into the studio Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze,78 a German who had lived in the United States for a while before returning to Germany.5 His major work completed there is his portrait of Washington Whittredge.9
Johnson then moved to The Hague and studied 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters. He ended his European travels in Paris, studying with the academic painter Thomas Couture in 1855 before returning to America in 1855 due to the death of his mother.
In 1859, he established a studio in New York city and secured his reputation as an American artist with an exhibition featuring his painting Negro Life at the South or as it is more popularly known Old Kentucky Home.11
He was a member of the Union League Club of New York, which holds many of his paintings. In 1869, he married Elizabeth Buckley, and had one daughter, Ethel Eastman Johnson, who was born in 1870 and married Alfred Ronalds Conkling (nephew of Senator Roscoe Conkling) in 1896.
Johnson's style is largely realistic in both subject matter and in execution. His charcoal sketches were not strongly influenced by period artists, but are informed more by his lithography training. Later works show influence by the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters, and also by Jean-François Millet. Echoes of Millet's The Gleaners can be seen in Johnson's The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket although the emotional tone of the work is far different.
His careful portrayal of individuals rather than stereotypes enhances the realism of his paintings. Ojibwe artist Carl Gawboy notes that the faces in the 1857 portraits of Ojibwe people by Johnson are recognizable in people in the Ojibwe community today.1213 Some of his paintings such as Ojibwe Wigwam at Grand Portage display near photorealism long before the photorealism movement.
His careful attention to light sources contributes to the realism. Portraits Girl and Pets and The Boy Lincoln make use of single light sources in a manner that echoes the 17th Century Dutch Masters.
Johnson's subject matter included portraits of the wealthy and influential from the President of the United States, to literary figures to portraits of unnamed individuals, but he is best known for his paintings of everyday people in everyday scenes. Johnson often repainted the same subject changing style or details.
His depictions of New England life, such as ''The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket, The Old Stagecoach, Husking Bee, Island of Nantucket, The Sap Gatherers, and Sugaring Off at the Camp, Fryeburg, Maine established him solidly as a genre painter. Over the course of five years, he made many sketches and smaller paintings depicting the process of turning maple sap into maple sugar, but never completed the larger work he had started.14
In contrast, the much celebrated Old Stagecoach was mostly staged in his studio and its composition carefully planned. The stage coach itself originated as an abandoned coach that he encountered and sketched while hiking in the Catskils. The children were painted from local children recruited from near his Nantucket Studio. Despite this artifice, the painting was celebrated as wholesome, natural and bucolic.15
In 1857, Johnson visited his sister on the western frontier of Wisconsin. Carl Gawboy, a modern day Ojibwe artist, has posited that Johnson's guide was likely George Bonga, a son of Pierre Bonga, a freed slave, who had married an Ojibwe woman. Gawboy speculates that Johnson's time with this mixed-race family changed his approach to painting. Certainly Johnson was successful in getting many Ojibwe to sit for him. His drawings and painting depict Ojibwe people in a much more intimate and relaxed manner than is usual for painting of that period. Also unusual was that he often included the subject's names in the title of the works. He did not focus solely on individual portraits, but also did paintings and sketches of scenes which including the Ojibwe dwellings, St. Louis bay, and other groupings of Ojibwe in everyday activities.1213
Johnson left Wisconsin due to wide spread financial panic that rendered his real estate investments there worthless. He left there for Cincinnati, Ohio to make money via portrait commissions and did not return to the subject of the Ojibwe.15 His paintings and sketches of the Ojibwe remained unsold during his lifetime and now are in the possession of the St. Louis County Historical Society in Duluth, Minnesota.16
Negro Life at the South is considered Johnson's masterpiece, and many elements have implications and have been interpreted at length.1718 Although this painting was popularly known as Old Kentucky Home nearly from the beginning, it depicts a scene from Washington, D.C.citation needed The painting is a domestic scene behind a dilapidated house. On the left in the foreground is a couple courting, in the middle there is a banjo player playing while an adult woman dances with a child as others look on. At the right edge, a young white woman in an elegant white dress is gingerly stepping into a social world that may not be her own. An adult black woman looks out an upstairs window as she steadies a small mulatto child sitting on the partially collapsed roof. The darkest skin belongs to the woman dancing with the child in the middle foreground. This skin color variation may simply be realistic, but it also invites the viewer to contemplate the mixed racial heritage of those portrayed.19 Several elements hint at or symbolize relations to an unseen wealthier white father—the mulatto children, the ladder from the Negro quarters up to a larger house next door, and symbolically the rooster high in the tree near the taller house and hen on the Negroes' house roof.18 Both proponents and detractors of slavery would sometimes see this painting as supporting their world views, because the Negroes seem cheerful enough but their house was dilapidated.1819
Another painting that invites interpretation is A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves (1862), which depicts a slave family riding to freedom. The male and child appear to have dark skin, while the woman appears to be Caucasian, looking behind her as if concerned about being followed. While the escape of a plantation slave from captivity is unambiguous, the Caucasian woman may have been escaping from a different type of slavery – that of marital servitude or cultural restrictions that frowned upon interracial relationships. This is consistent with Johnson's other explorations of mixed race. The painting is allegedly based on Johnson's observations during the Civil War Battle of Manassas.11
His work The Lord is My Shepherd (1963) also contains imagery of a man reading the first part of a Bible, possibly the Book of Exodus, while sitting against a blue jacket that may indicate service in the Union army.20
The Girl I Left Behind Me, oil on canvas, between 1870 and 1875, 42 x 34 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum
Ruth, oil on panel, 1880–1885, Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Self-portrait of Eastman Johnson, oil on canvas, ca. 1890, Brooklyn Museum
The Nantucket School of Philosophy, 1887. The Walters Art Museum
- "Sugaring Off: The Maple Sugar Paintings of Eastman Johnson".
- "University of Maine". Retrieved 2007-07-09.
- "Eastman Johnson". Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- Hills 1972, pp. 6-9.
- "Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze". Archived from the original on 2006-03-21. Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- "Edward Beyer". Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- Hills 1972, p. 11.
- "Eastman Johnson: Painting America". Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- Hills 1972, p. 17.
- Hills 1972, p. 21.
- "A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves". Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- "Eastman Johnson's legacy in art". 2006-07-04. Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- "Civil Civil War Symbolism". Retrieved 2006-08-19.dead link
- "Sugaring Off". Archived from the original on 2006-08-12. Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- Carbone, Teresa A. (1999). Eastman Johnson: Painting America. Patricia Hills (first ed.). Italy: Brookly Museum of Art.
- Patricia Hills. Painting Race: Eastman Johnson's Pictures of Slaves, Ex-Slaves, and Freedman. In Teresa A. Carbone and Patricia Hills, ed., Eastman Johnson: painting America, 1999, Brooklyn Museum of Art.
- Eleanor Jones Harvey. 2012. The Civil War in American Art. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300187335. (at google books)
- Davis, John. Eastman Johnson's 'Negro Life at the South' and urban slavery in Washington, D.C. The Art Bulletin 80:1 (Mar, 1998), 67-92.
- Harvey, Eleanor Jones (2013-10-30), Painting Freedom, New York Times, retrieved 2013-10-31
Hills, Patricia, Eastman Johnson, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. 1972, LCCN 70-186696
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Eastman Johnson.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Johnson, Eastman.|
- Art and the empire city: New York, 1825-1861, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Eastman Johnson (see index)
- Eastman Johnson at Find-A-Grave
- "Eastman Johnson letters". Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Retrieved February 15, 2013.
- "Johnson, Eastman". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1892
- "Johnson, Eastman". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921.