Although Johnson had exhibited works sent from Europe at the National Academy of Design in the early 1850s, it was his Negro Life at the South that established his reputation as the leading genre painter and assured his election as an Associate Academician, an honor that was invaluable in securing an artist’s fortune. To midcentury white America, the general dilapidation of the slave quarters was picturesque, and the small anecdotal touches were delightful. Today we may be ambivalent in our approach to Negro Life, or at least troubled by the simplistic view of Blacks in stereotypical activities: playing banjoes, shuffling to music, courting idly, and fondling children. However, more issues come to light upon close examination of the painting: What is the purpose/effect of the white woman stepping through the door at the right; what is the effect of the Black woman leaning out the window holding her baby; what about the individualistic renderings of the Black adults? Such questions need to be explored [See Hills 1974; Davis 1991; Hills 1999].
This painting and its variations have been placed in a separate category from Black Groups because of its historic significance as Johnson’s chef-d’oeuvre. —PH
- Description / Remarks
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- Exhibition History
- Hills Examination / Opinion
- Sitter Biography
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Hills, 2021: The most extensive discussions of this painting can be found in John Davis, "Eastman Johnson's Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, D.C." (1998) and Patricia Hills, "Painting Race: Eastman Johnson's Pictures of Slaves, Ex-Slaves, and Freedmen" (1999). See Bibliography for more information.
Note the uncertainty regarding the exhibition of the painting at the National Academy of Design, April 13–June 25, 1859, and at the Boston Athenaeum in April 1859. It is questionable whether the same painting could have participated in both events given the close timing.
Many comments from contemporary art writers relay to us today the then-contemporary view of attitudes by whites toward pictures dealing with race in the mid-nineteenth century. During the Civil War white perceptions of Black life were exceedingly varied and resist generalizations.
Henry Tuckerman, Book of the Artists, 1867: “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 affection, the humor, the patience and serenity which redeem from brutality and ferocity the civilized though subjugated African, are made to appear in the creations of this artist with singular authenticity.” [Quoted Hills 1999, p. 121]
Anonymous, Harper’s Weekly, May 4, 1867: The critic commented on the new role for writers in showing the emotions of slaves: “Mrs. Stowe broke the spell in literature. Eastman Johnson broke it in art.” [Quoted Hills 1977, p. 64, and Hills 1999, p. 161, note 36]
Anonymous, New-York Daily Tribune, May 21, 1859: “In the Life at the South there is a story within a story: first, that of slave-life, as telling as a chapter from ‘Slavery As It Is,’ or a stirring speech from the Anti-Slavery platform, the negro quarters teeming with life, human and animal: the old building, moss-covered, neglected, ruinous, and desolate, contrasted with the well-built and carefully kept dwelling just seen beyond it; the indolent servants enjoying to the full their only solace—music; the mistress, refined and elegant, just looking in upon what clearly, for that fact, is not a daily scene, with her maid behind her, better fed, better clothes, much more of a woman, much less of a slave in her outward life, than her fellow servants, all presenting a sad picture of Southern Slavery, when viewed from one stand point.
“On the other side is the careless happiness of simple people, intent only upon the enjoyment of the present moment, forgetful, perhaps ignorant, of degradation, and thoughtless of how soon may come the rupture of all those natural ties in which lie the only happiness that life can give them; the delighted mother and her dancing child; the old man, wrapped up in the sweet sounds of his own creation; the little boy, with his neglected plaything, entranced by the true negro love of melody; the children wondering at the sight of ‘Missis’ in the negro-yard; the young lovers, their very attitudes instinct with the fine sentiment which belongs alone to no condition, but is common to every human creature; and even the little dog which lends his hilarious bark to the general fund. “ [Quoted Hills, 1999, p. 127]
Anonymous, The Crayon, June 1859: “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 studies and painting, and full of ideas. . . . The picture of ‘Negro Life at the South’ . . . is a kind of Art that will be always popular so long as lowly life exists to excite and to reveal the play of human sympathy. But ‘Negro Life at the South’ is not ‘high Art,’ for the reason that the most beautiful thoughts and emotions capable of Art representation, are not embodied in the most beautiful forms, and in the noblest combinations.” [Quoted Hills, 1999, p. 128]
Leeds & Miner sale catalogue, 1867: "A faithful and charming picture of domestic life in the 'South,' one which will be feelingly recognized by many, and yearly increase in historic value as time speeds us onward from the 'days gone by.' This is the artist's masterpiece."
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Also owned by: New-York Historical Society, New York (PR.068.11)
See all Prints after Works by Johnson.