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Monday, 3 August 2009

Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) - Painting America

One of the most elegant artists of the last half of the nineteenth century, Eastman Johnson became famous for his insights into American culture and his efforts to establish the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Alexandra A. Jopp

In the nineteenth century, esteemed American artists were often credited with titles that tied them to Europe: Thomas Moran was the “American Turner,” John Henry Twachtman was the “American Monet,” Childe Hassam was the “American Sisley,” and Eastman Johnson was granted the appellation of the “American Rembrandt.” Though such comparisons to Old World brilliance were meant as honors, American artists often rejected them and worked to create a unique style that was detached from European models. Thus Johnson, even while working in seventeenth-century Dutch traditions, painted subjects that were distinctly American.

Fiddling His Way, 1866. 
The Reprimand, 1880. 
This painting represents a room in an old New England home, with carved mantel, fire-place, and other surroundings to call up the good old time. An old gentlemen seated near the fire-place, is administering a slight reprimand, while a girl twelve or thirteen years old, is turning away in a half-sad and half-stubborn manner. Eastman Johnson may be fairly described as a representative American, and as rivaling the ability of the modern continental masters. 
The Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln, 1868.

Eastman Johnson was born in Lovell, Maine, in 1824 and grew up in Fryeburg and Augusta. At an early age, he began working in the dry goods business, and in 1840, he was sent to a lithography shop in Boston. However, he found lithography to be monotonous and unfulfilling, and four years later, he returned to Augusta and worked as a crayon portraitist. He had a natural aptitude for art and attended art school in New York before moving to Washington, D.C. Working for the U.S. Senate, he painted portraits of Dolly Madison, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and other famous public figures. Soon after, in 1846, he went back to Boston, where he opened a studio in Tremont Temple and produced portraits in crayon of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Hatch Family, 1870-1871.

In 1849, with the encouragement of the American Art Union, Johnson, accompanied by George Henry Hall, sailed to Europe for what would be six years of study. Johnson settled in Düsseldorf, Germany, a popular destination for young American artists. He enrolled in Düsseldorf Académie, where he started to work with colors, and in 1851, he entered the studio of Emanuel Luetze. During a stay in The Hague, Johnson studied seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, mainly works by Rembrandt and Van Dyck, and captured old Dutch traditions. Under this Dutch influence, the artist’s style evolved to include richer colors, dynamic design and exciting contrasts of light and shadow. Before returning to Washington in 1855, he spent two months in Paris, where he worked briefly with the French academic painter, Thomas Couture.

In the two years after his return to the United States, Johnson spent time in Superior, Wisc., painting the Indians of that area. After a short stay in Cincinnati in 1858, he moved to New York and opened a studio in the Old University Building in Washington Square. At an April 1859 exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York, he showed three crayon drawings, one of which – Negro Life in the South, or Old Kentucky Home – would come to be regarded as his most original and remarkable work. This large painting – which depicts a moment in the life of slaves in the nation’s capital – brought fame to Johnson and established him as a major American genre artist. Art critic Henry Tuckerman saw in the picture an indication of the progress of genre painting: “We realize how national genre art … has advanced. … .Not only is the style more finished, but the significance is deeper, the sentiment more delicate.” 1 This picture made him famous, and lifted him into a prominent position in American art. In 1860, he was elected a member of the National Academy, and one of his paintings, contributed to the Exposition Universalle of 1867, won him recognition from the Academy. 

Negro Life in the South, or Old Kentucky Home, 1859.

In 1869, Johnson married Elizabeth Buckley of Troy, N.Y., with whom he had a daughter. The following year, he visited Nantucket, Mass., and in 1871, he built a house there where he would spend his summers. In Nantucket, he worked with rural subjects and produced a series of studies of cranberry harvesting.

Over the course of his fruitful career, Johnson developed a reputation as an accomplished and adept painter of not only individual and group portraits but also urban scenes and landscapes. He had a feel for color, and his depictions of groups of farmers are often charismatic in tone. His subjects range from farm scenes to country house interiors to rural genre painting. The Dutch influence can be seen in paintings such as The Mount Vernon Kitchen (1857) and Susan Ray’s Kitchen (1875).

The Old Mount Vernon, 1857.
The Mount Vernon Kitchen, 1859.

In 1906, at the age of 82, an ill and feeble Johnson began to show signs of heart weakness. He died in New York, surrounded by his wife Elizabeth, his daughter Ethel and his son-in-law Alfred Ronald Conkling.

1: Patricia Johnston, Seeing High and Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 106.

For more information please visit Questroyal Fine Art Gallery, NYC at

1 comment:

  1. The American painter Jonathan Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) excelled at genre paintings of life in America during the 1860s and 1870s. He also drew and painted many portraits.

    Eastman Johnson was born in August 1824 at Lovell, Maine. His family soon moved to nearby Fryeburg. He spent his youth in Augusta, the capital, for his father was Maine's secretary of state. At the age of 15 Johnson left home to work in a dry-goods store in New Hampshire. Because of his interest in drawing, he worked for a year in a lithographic shop in Boston. In 1842 he returned to Augusta and began making and selling crayon portraits at modest prices. Successful, he drew portraits in Cambridge, Mass., and Newport, R.I., and in 1845 he moved to Washington, D.C., where within a year he had drawn such famous people as Daniel Webster and Dolly Madison. In 1846 he moved to Boston at the invitation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose portrait he drew, as well as those of Longfellow's family and friends. He remained in Boston for 3 years.

    It was not until 1848 that Johnson made his first oil painting, a portrait of his grandmother. The following year he went to Europe to improve his art. He studied for 2 years at the Royal Academy in Düsseldorf, Germany. After a brief visit to France and Italy, Johnson spent 3 1/2 years at The Hague, Holland, where he made a close study of Dutch 17th-century painting, particularly Rembrandt. Known in The Hague as the "American Rembrandt," he was offered, but refused, the post of court painter.

    Intent on portraying American subjects, Johnson returned to America in 1855. Shortly afterward, while visiting a sister in Wisconsin, he made paintings of American Indians. In 1859 in Washington, D.C., he made his first large genre painting, titled Life in the South (today called Old Kentucky Home ). This won him acclaim and election to the National Academy in New York.

    During the Civil War, Johnson followed the Union Army, sketching subjects for genre paintings, the most famous of which is the Wounded Drummer Boy. During the next 2 decades he spent much of his time painting New Englanders of all ages at work and at play. It is for these that he is now famous.

    At Fryeburg, Johnson made many informal oil sketches around a sugar-making camp. In the early 1870s he visited Nantucket, where he painted a group of old men sitting around a stove (Nantucket School of Philosophy ) and the large Corn Husking Bee. At Kennebunkport, Maine, he painted a group of intimate little pictures of his family that are among his best works.

    As the demand for his genre paintings decreased, Johnson's popularity as a portraitist increased, and after 1880 he painted few genre subjects. For the most part his commissioned portraits, though they brought him wealth, are dark and dull. Toward the end of his life he made three brief trips to Europe. He died in New York City on April 5, 1906.

    Further Reading
    John I.H. Baur, An American Genre Painter: Eastman Johnson, 1824-1906 (1940), the catalog for the 1940 Johnson exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, contains a brief life of the artist, illustrations of some of his work, and a listing of located and unlocated works. Since 1940, additional works have been located. Patricia Hills, Eastman Johnson, is the catalog of the 1972 Johnson exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.