Eastman Johnson, N. A.

(29 July 1824 - 5 April 1906)

As a young man he began the practice of his profession by the execution of portraits in black and white, showing considerable skill, and meeting with some success in that branch of the art. Going abroad, he studied for two years in Düsseldorf, for the first time painting in oil. He subsequently studied in Italy, Paris, Holland, and at The Hague, where he remained four years, and executed his first important works, "Card-Players" "Savoyard Boy," and others. Returning to America, he opened a studio in New York, and was made a member of the National Academy in 1860, painting those original sketches and pictures of American domestic and negro life in which he so decidedly excels.

Self-Portrait, 1860-63 Self-Portrait, 1863 Self-Portrait, ca. 1885

Among the earlier of these works (many of which have been chromoed, lithographed, and engraved) are his:
"Girls by the Stove,"
"Boys at the School,"
"Sunday Morning,"
"Hard Cider,"
"Washington's Kitchen, Mt. Vernon,"
"Old Kentucky Home,"
"Crossing a Stream,"
"Chimney-Sweep" (belonging to T. R. Butler),
"The Drummer-Boy," and others illustrative of the life of the American soldier during the Civil War.

He sent to the National Academy:
1869, "The Art-Lover";
1871, "The Old Stage-Coach";
1873, "The Woodland Bath,"
"Catching the Bee," and
"The Sulky Boy";
1874, "The Tea-Party,"
"Bo-Peep," and
"A Prisoner of State";
1875, "Milton dictating to his Daughter,"
"The Toilet," and
"The Peddler";
1876, "The Husking-Bee" and
"The New Bonnet";
1877, "Dropping Off" (belonging to R. H. Stoddard) and
"The Tramp";
1878, portraits of Dr. Patten of Union College,
Chief Justice Daly, and
"Children playing in a Barn."

At the Mechanics' Fair, Boston, 1878, was exhibited:
"The Lullaby" (belonging to Mr. E. D. Maynard).
Among Eastman Johnson's portraits is one of A. B. Stone.

His "New England Boy at Breakfast,"
"Chimney-Corner," and
"Wandering Fiddler" were in the Johnston Collection, the last selling for $2,375. His
"Old Kentucky Home" (belonging to R. L. Stuart) was in the Paris Exposition of 1867, and the American Centennial Exhibition of 1876. His
"Old Stage-Coach" is the property of George Whitney;
"Sabbath Morning," property of R. L. Stuart;
"Bo-Peep," property of H. Richmond.
"Tender Passion" is in the Walters Collection in Baltimore. His
"Corn-Husking" and
"What the Sea says" were at the Paris Exposition of 1878. His
"Mother and Child" belongs to Abner Mellen, Jr., of New York.

"In his delineation of the negro Eastman Johnson has achieved a peculiar fame. One may find in his best pictures of this class a better insight into the normal character of that unfortunate race than ethnological discussion often yields; 'The Old Kentucky Home' is not only a masterly work of art, full of truth, nature, local significance, and character, but it illustrates a phase of American life which the late war and its consequences will either uproot or essentially modify; and therefore this picture is as valuable as a memorial as it is interesting as an art study." -- Tuckerman's Book of the Artists.

"In genre. Mr. Eastman Johnson contributed the
"Prisoner of State,"
"The Old Kentucky Home,"
"Sunday Morning," and
"The Old Stage-Coach," which are all representative of the acknowledged excellence of his style. Mr. Johnson's subjects are derived fresh from nature, and are generally illustrative of characteristic traits of American life and customs. They are carefully studied, and always expressive of genuine feeling. They are not altogether free from uncertainty of form and touch and monotony of tone, but no one has more decided individuality and independence in choice and treatment of subject than this artist. His pictures bear the unmistakable stamp of originality. We are never reminded in them of the influence of schools or foreign methods; they rest upon their own merits, and the only comparisons they suggest are those afforded by the truths of nature. 'The Old Kentucky Home' is the picture that first gave him his reputation, which every succeeding work has sustained and increased. 'The Old Stage-Coach' displays greater maturity of method and breadth of treatment, but in accurate delineation of character, 'The Old Kentucky Home' is hardly surpassed. The impression made by Mr. Johnson's pictures is a genuine one. We instinctively feel that the artist himself was impressed, and sought to express something that touched his sympathies forcibly. This is their interest and power, and criticism starts from this source rather than from the mere pictorial elements of technical merit that usually, in artists of less character, first engage the attention." -- Prof. Weir's Official Report of the American Centennial Exhibition of 1876.

Artists of the Nineteenth Century; their Works aamp; Biographical Sketches. By Clara Erskine Clement and Laurence Hutton. 1879.

Eastman Johnson, genre and portrait painter, was born Jonathan Eastman Johnson in Lovell, Maine, the son of Philip C. Johnson, a government official, and Mary Chandler. Information about Johnson's youth and early education is sketchy. In 1827-1828, the family (Johnson was the third of eight siblings) moved to Fryeburg, Maine, and in 1834-1835, to Augusta, Maine, where Philip Johnson held various posts in the state government. According to a family-owned manuscript autobiography by Johnson's younger brother, Philip C. Johnson, Jr., Eastman lived for a time in Concord, New Hampshire, and then worked in a brother-in-law's dry goods store in Augusta, "where he manifested a natural taste for drawing and painting." Art historian John I. H. Baur found evidence that Johnson's father placed the budding artist in a lithographer's shop in Boston, but that Johnson soon returned to Augusta where he began to draw portraits in crayon of his family and neighbors.

In 1844 or 1845, Johnson moved to Washington, D.C., and began to draw crayon portraits, a career boosted when his family moved to the nation's capital following his father's appointment to a high-level post in the Navy Department. Johnson drew skilled portraits of, among others, John Quincy Adams (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.), and Dolley Madison (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University). In 1846, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow invited Johnson to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to draw portraits of his family and friends. For the next three years Johnson maintained studios in Amory Hall and Tremont Temple while he drew such notables as Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Charles Sumner (all at the Longfellow National Historic Site, Cambridge, Mass.).

Ambitious to make his mark as a painter, Johnson knew he needed European training. Encouraged by the New York-based American Art-Union, the most influential patron of the arts during the 1840s, in 1849 he moved to Düsseldorf, then a popular art center for Americans. While there he took classes at the Royal Academy, and in January 1851, he entered the Düsseldorf studio of the celebrated German-born American history painter Emanuel Leutze. After a brief trip to Holland and London in the summer of 1851, Johnson relocated to The Hague in order to study Rembrandt and the Dutch masters firsthand. August Belmont, American minister to the Netherlands, helped Johnson secure portrait commissions, and Johnson remained there until August 1855, when he moved to Paris to study with Thomas Couture, another teacher popular with the Americans.

Johnson had to cut short his Paris stay and return to Washington, D.C., in October 1855, following news of his mother's death. For the next four years he searched out what would be considered typically "American" subjects -- slave life in Virginia and the Ojibwa in Superior, Wisconsin, near where a sister was homesteading. Although he regularly sent his paintings to the National Academy of Design, in this period he supported himself by painting portraits, taking a studio in Cincinnati during the late winter and early spring of 1857-1858. He settled permanently in New York City in 1858.

Fame came in 1859, when Johnson exhibited "Negro Life at the South" (New-York Historical Society) at the National Academy of Design . For the setting, Johnson drew on his observations of slave quarters at F and 13th streets in Washington, D.C. Groups of slaves animate the composition by dancing, courting, and playing the banjo at the rear of the run-down building, while at the edge a white mistress steps through a fence to view the revelry in her back yard. A reviewer of that year's annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design, writing in the June 1859, issue of The Crayon, offered characteristic praise: "One of the best pictures in respect to Art and the most popular, because presenting familiar aspects of life, is E. Johnson's 'Negro Life at the South.' ...Although a very humble subject, this picture is a very instructive one in relation to Art. It is conscientiously studied and painted, and full of ideas. Notwithstanding the general ugliness of the forms and objects, we recognize that its sentiment is one of beauty, for imitation and expression are vitalized by conveying to our mind the enjoyment of human beings in new and vivid aspects".

Because of its ambivalent message, "Negro Life at the South" seems to have pleased all viewers. To southerners, the depiction of happy, well-fed slaves served as an apologia for slavery; to abolitionists, the crumbling architecture had significance. One such critic was quoted in Henry Theodore Tuckerman's Book of the Artists (1867): "How fitly do the dilapidated and decaying negro quarters typify the approaching destruction of the 'system' that they serve to illustrate! And, in the picture before us, we have an illustration also of the 'rose-water' side of the institution. Here all is fun and freedom. We behold the very reality that the enthusiastic devotees of slavery have so often painted with high-sounding words. And yet this dilapidation, unheeded and unchecked, tells us that the end is near".

Elected as an associate of the prestigious National Academy of Design in 1859, and as a full academician the following year, Johnson continued to paint African Americans with a dignity that makes evident his Republican sympathies. During the Civil War years, however, he also painted genre scenes of the homefront that had popular appeal, such as
"News from the Front" (1861, unlocated),
"Knitting for the Soldiers" (1861, unlocated),
"Woman Sewing -- Work for the Fair" (1862, unlocated), and
"Writing to Father" (1863, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Like other artists he traveled with the Union troops on military campaigns in search of fitting genre subjects, which he later completed as finished paintings:
"The Wounded Drummer Boy" (1871, "Union League Club", New York) and
"The Field Hospital" (1867, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
The "Ride for Liberty" -- "The Fugitive Slaves" (1863, versions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Brooklyn Museum) depicts an event he witnessed on 23 March 1862, as he accompanied General George B. McClellan's troops advancing toward Manassas. The picture depicts a slave family of four as agents of their own freedom -- not just passive recipients of white benevolence; they sit astride a single horse, galloping toward the Union lines in the early dawn hours. In 1866, when sympathy for freed slaves ran high among northern artists, Johnson painted "Fiddling His Way" (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Va.), a representation of a recently freed slave earning his livelihood entertaining a white rustic family who listen respectfully to the handsome young African American. By the end of the 1860s Johnson was indisputedly the most praised genre painter in America. Russell Sturges, Jr., one of the new breed of professional art critics, in reviewing the 1867 annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design for the June issue of The Galaxy, praised Johnson's entry, "The Pension Claim Agent" (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) and then added: "A collection of Mr. Johnson's pictures would probably be more interesting to visit than one of any other American painter. His work, taken together, is more truly representative of his countrymen.... There is no painter, not even among the younger men who are just coming into sight from behind the horizon, who get on faster, or who leave the past of a year or two back more decidedly and forever behind".

New England continued to be a source of subjects for Johnson's brush. Even during the war years he returned to Maine in the early spring months and painted studies of farm families gathering sap from sugar maples, bringing buckets to forest camps, where huge kettles boiled down the sap into syrup, and dancing and conversing at the camp sites. He and his wife, Elizabeth Buckley of Troy, New York, whom he married in 1869, and with whom he would have one child, began to summer on Nantucket in 1870. The island provided a range of new subjects. He bought property there in 1871, and for the rest of his painting career spent long summer months on the island, where he painted
"The Old Stage Coach" (1871, Milwaukee Art Center),
"Hollyhocks" (1876, New Britain Museum of American Art, Conn.),
"Cornhusking Bee" (1876, Art Institute of Chicago),
and many studies of the cranberry harvest, culminating in his major picture
"The Cranberry Harvest", Island of Nantucket (1880, Timkin Gallery, San Diego). He also painted many pictures of the retired sea captains who reminisced around pot-bellied stoves, such as
"The Nantucket School of Philosophy" (1887, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore).

Visits during 1877 and 1878 to his sister's family in Kennebunkport, Maine, resulted in a series of barn interiors featuring energetic children climbing on the beams. Not surprisingly, by 1880 critics began to identify him as a genre painter of a rural American way of life that was quickly disappearing as the nation became more urban, industrial, and cosmopolitan.

By the early 1880s, however, Johnson was turning away from genre painting and devoting himself to commissioned portraits. Throughout his career he painted friends, family, and, increasingly, wealthy art patrons who were fellow club members at the Union League Club and the Century Club. Along with many of these wealthy business and social leaders Johnson founded the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870. In the late 1860s and early 1870s he painted small "conversation pieces," such as "The Brown Family" (1869, versions at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) and "The Hatch Family" (1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); however, he usually painted life-sized portraits. He was particularly skilled and successful at painting men, and his works constitute a pantheon of the great public figures of the time:
Bishop Henry C. Potter,
Frederick A. P. Barnard,
William Evarts,
George M. Pullman,
William H. Vanderbilt,
John D. Rockefeller,
Jay Gould, and
Presidents Grover Cleveland and
Benjamin Harrison.

Even with the shift in taste from genre painting to realism and then impressionism, Johnson continued to be admired, both by the older academicians who served with him on committees at the National Academy of Design and by the younger artists who invited him to show his work at the annual exhibitions of the Society of American Artists, a group organized in 1878, to showcase the recent styles from Europe. The modernist critic Sadakichi Hartmann assessed Johnson's career two years after his death in New York City: "Although he typifies best the period of the sixties and seventies, the years previous to the general exodus of young American painters to Munich and Paris, he managed to hold his own even at a time when [William Merritt] Chase, [Julian Alden] Weir, [Walter] Shirlaw, [and Thomas] Eakins, became the brilliant exponents of a new, more technically perfect style of painting".

Johnson's achievement was to bring more sophisticated techniques to the United States, to extend the range of "American" subject matter, and to insist on a more dignified and democratic content to genre painting. He spoke to and for his own generation, and he greatly influenced a number of genre painters as they made their transition from genre painting to art-for-art's sake modernism. He could produce anecdotal and sentimental pictures while simultaneously experimenting with a lighter palette, looser brushwork, and summary treatment of forms. Seen in the broader context of American art, Johnson's work forges the strongest link between the genre painting of the pre-Civil War years and the realism of the late nineteenth century.

Self-portraits are at the National Portrait Gallery, the
Hirshhorn Museum and
Sculpture Garden,
the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and
the National Academy of Design.

Johnson had no major biography written during his lifetime, but he was included in all the major contemporary surveys of American art. His death, however, coincided with an efflorescence of art writing, and hence several long essays appeared on him in and after 1906:
William Walton, "Eastman Johnson, Painter," Scribner's Magazine, September, 1906;
Edgar P. French, "An American Portrait Painter of Three Historical Epochs," World's Work, December, 1906;
Mark Selby, "An American Painter: Eastman Johnson," Putnam's Monthly, August, 1907; and
Sadakichi Hartmann, "Eastman Johnson: American Genre Painter," International Studio 34 (April, 1908).

The estate sale of Johnson's work held at Anderson Art Galleries in 1907, provided descriptions of the 150 pictures sold. Tributes by fellow artists Will H. Low, Carroll Beckwith, Samuel Isham, and Frank Fowler were published in Scribner's Magazine, August, 1906.


Eastman Johnson, artist, was born in Lovell, Maine, 29 July, 1824. Adopting drawing as a profession at eighteen, he settled first in Augusta, Maine, working almost wholly on portraits in black and white and in pastel. In 1845. he removed with his parents to Washington, D. C., where he drew portraits of many distinguished men, including Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams, and while in Boston in 1846-49, he made portraits of Longfellow and his family, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Sumner. He went to Düsseldorf in 1849, studied one year at the Royal academy, one with Leutze, and four at the Hague, painting there his first important pictures in oil, “The Savoyard” and the “Card Players,” and afterward established himself in Paris, but returned to the United States in 1856. He was in Washington, D. C., and on the northern shores of Lake Superior among the Indian tribes in 1856-57, returning to the former place in 1858, and painting the “Old Kentucky Home,” which established his reputation as an artist. In the autumn of this year he opened a studio in New York, where he since resided. He was elected an academician in 1860, and has contributed since that time to each of the annual exhibitions of the National academy. His genre compositions, suggested by American scenes, have been highly popular, appreciated alike by artists and the public, and many of them have been engraved. He excels as a portrait-painter, and is particularly happy in the delineation of American domestic and negro character. Among his pictures are:
“The Old Kentucky Home,”
“Sunday Morning,”
“Prisoners of State,”
“The Barefoot Boy,”
“Dropping Off,”
“Fiddling his Way,”
“The Pension Agent,”
“Milton Dictating to his Daughters,”
“The Old Stage-Coach,”
“Husking at Nantucket,”
“Bo-Peep” (exhibited at the Royal academy, London),
“Barn Swallows, a Group of Children,”
“What the Shell Says,” and
“Old Whalers of Nantucket.”

His portraits, besides those already mentioned, include likenesses of
Grover Cleveland,
Chester A. Arthur,
Dr. James McCosh, and
William M. Evarts.

Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography, Johnson, Eastman, Edition of 1892.

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