Art Historical Context of Johnson’s Art:
Genre Painting and Portraiture
In Western European art history genre painting has been defined as “pictures of everyday life,” a category that first blossomed into an established branch of painting in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. At that time many merchants had managed to rise out of the rural and urban working classes and attain economic power, yet they still harbored a nostalgia for their more humble beginnings. Many such patrons took pleasure in their feelings of superiority over the “vulgar” antics of the working classes, while other patrons appreciated viewing domestic scenes of people much like themselves. Soon a burgeoning art market prompted a division of labor in which genre painters—“little masters”—specialized in those different subjects. Some artists accommodated those patrons who preferred scenes of “low life”—such as card sharks and drunkards in taverns and kitchens. Other patrons and their artists preferred quiet scenes of prosperous bourgeois life—women writing letters or small groups listening to musicians. Today art historians see the former category of scenes as emphasizing the painting of “types,” often with a moralizing undertone, whereas the latter category with its middle class urban subjects are still admired today as forerunners of nineteenth-century realism.
In the eighteenth century in England and on the Continent, what seems to have appealed to a growing middle class of collectors were sentimental rustic scenes, poor but pretty urban children selling flowers or peddling other wares, and, occasionally, political satire costumed as domestic scenes, such as the “Marriage a la Mode” series by William Hogarth. But dominating market popularity (aside from landscape painting) were group portraits commissioned by the landed gentry of their families gathered in front of their estates or in their parlors; such subjects were known as “conversation pieces.”
In America in the eighteenth century, scenes of daily life could be found on commercial signs, banknotes, embroidery, fire screens, literary illustrations, and occasionally decorative over-mantle pictures. Not until the second decade of the nineteenth century did genre painting emerge in the United States as a separate branch of painting, and then it was close to earlier European prototypes—emphasizing gestures, anecdotal elements, and moralizing or humorous stories. It also followed three lines of development: the topographical view animated with small-scale working or strolling figures; sentimental genre paintings, such as bashful lovers and caring mothers; and political and social commentary, such as shrewd peddlers and politicians hustling votes [See Hills 1974].
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, there was a clamor among writers and civic leaders for a national art—an art that would reflect the diversity of peoples in the expanding country. Of course, in that period, landscape painting dominated—scenes that depicted different regions. But the focus of concern regarding the encouragement of cultural nationalism was genre painting. In 1842 Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “The Poet”: “We have yet had no genius in America with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials . . . Our logrolling, our stumps, and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boats . . . the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination" [Quoted in Hills 1974, p. 24]. By geography, Emerson meant the people who characterized the different regions.
The demand for a positive, national art among Northern civic leaders was driven by anxieties that slavery in the South was rapidly dividing the nation and destroying its commerce coupled by the belief that the middle classes should step forward as patrons for an “American art.” To make art affordable to these middle classes, art unions, first established in Europe, became popular in the United States. The American Art-Union (AAU), founded in New York City in 1838 as the Apollo Association, became the most influential art organization of the 1840s. The AAU supported Johnson’s trip to Europe by urging him to study in Düsseldorf, then the leading Academy for figure painters (as opposed to landscape painters) and also by purchasing some of his early works in oil.
The AAU managers (mostly businessmen) encouraged not only a national art, but they also frowned on the pointed satiric humor of many established painters and preferred history painting and genre painting with cosmopolitan themes. Hence, the examples of types, such as the bashful bride, the comically eager suitor, the overweight white servant, the naughty school boy, the stern school master, the drunken sailor, the sly Yankee peddler, the slick politician, the “savage” Native American, and the grinning Black musician, gave way to prosperous farmers, heroic white pioneers in the West, men engaged in sports and hunting, playful children, couples on vacation, and thoughtful women.
Moreover, in the post-Civil War years, the mood of art collectors and critics had changed as they began to participate in the upscale sophistication of the new global economy. Genre paintings were beginning to seem like relics from the past. Cultural critic Henry T. Tuckerman admitted as much when he quoted “an intelligent critic of the Paris Exposition of 1867” who had commented on Johnson’s “four canvases,” including Negro Life at the South with its depiction of enslaved persons, then on view in Paris. Tuckerman cites the anonymous critic: “There are not many genre pictures in the Exposition that excel these. They have the merit, too, of being true and faithful transcripts of American life, or of a phase of it which, as it has now passed away, can only be recalled by the pencil of the artist” [Quoted in Tuckerman 1867, pp. 18–19].
Indeed, in the post-Civil War years, subjects for painting shifted away from “faithful transcripts of American life.” American critics and artists looked for inspiration to the cosmopolitan themes of French, English, and German artists with their large canvases of sweeping country vistas, upper-class women in fashionable clothing, or “exotic” scenes of Middle Eastern men and women.
Another shift, among younger painters who were traveling abroad in the 1870s and 1880s, was away from the subjects or art toward the process of making art. These shifts coincide with the larger shift then being acknowledged in art circles, both in the United States and abroad: away from the notion that art function as a didactic tool to elevate the morals and patriotism of the citizenry toward “art-for-art’s sake.” Whereas the English critic John Ruskin had represented the moralizing mission of painting, he was soon supplanted by other writers. One such English literary critic, Matthew Arnold, in his influential 1869 book Culture and Anarchy, argued in favor of abandoning a moralizing, “Hebraism” approach and instead embrace the Hellenic ideal of spontaneity and “sweetness and light.” These changes in aesthetic theory brought about impressionism, in its many iterations. In 1881, American artists, many trained in Paris, founded the Society of American Artists. They introduced the new European styles, especially impressionism, in their exhibitions of the 1880s and 1890s.
Although Johnson continued to paint scenes of everyday life, he adapted to changing ideas about art and thus aligned himself with the younger generation of John Singer Sargent and the impressionists. He was admired for so doing; as the critic for the New York Times wrote of his painting Corn Husking [Husking Bee, Island of Nantucket] shown at the Paris Exposition of 1878: “The best genre picture in the American section is the ‘Corn Husking.’” The critic further commented that it was “not a realistic rendering of corn-husking . . . it is an artistic rendering . . . The subject is subordinated to the treatment.” Indeed, Johnson’s late technique, originally learned from the French history painter Thomas Couture, was akin to impressionism—making his finished paintings take on the quality of the sketch, with patches of sunlight radiating from the clothing of individuals and with subsidiary figures barely articulated. But by 1880 he had turned to painting portraits, an occupation that seems to have demanded all of his attention.
The role of photography should not be underestimated in this shift. The photographic eye sees in terms of light and dark. If light does not illuminate objects, then such objects might as well not be there. The truth is in what one sees. The eyes of pre-photographic artists would paint what was there, whether or not it could be seen. Johnson was unique among genre painters; from the beginning of his career, as a portrait draftsman in the 1840s, he saw figures in terms of light on surfaces, and, in his early genre paintings, of light piercing through darkened interiors. To some critics, such as the New York Times critic cited above, it was “the subject…subordinated to the treatment.” To Johnson, it was not just the treatment or process, but a way of seeing and acknowledging reality.
Art writer S. G. W. Benjamin was spot-on when he singled out Johnson in 1883 as “the representative American” for his ability to move among the National Academicians and the Society of American Artists contenders with equal ease. Benjamin’s remarks comment on Johnson’s stature in the art world and his uniqueness as a transition figure. These remarks deserve to be quoted at length:
It is evident from this survey of Mr. Johnson’s art-life that his position among American painters must necessarily to prominent and influential; for with his artistic qualities he has a fund of strong common-sense and an American shrewdness that render him an excellent manager and adviser. His name appears, therefore, on almost every art-committee of importance, and his judgment is greatly valued. Not only is he a member of the National Academy at New York, he belongs also to the Society of American Artists, which was established with the avowed purpose of rivaling the Academy. His work is to be seen conspicuously at the exhibitions of both these societies, and he is claimed by the followers of both the schools . . . The Academicians call him theirs, because, although he studied long abroad, he has imported the style of no foreign artist, and because too, he has been content to look for subjects at home, thus showing himself wholly in sympathy with the work of the new school of American painters, who, while showing ability and enterprise have purposely imported the styles of Bonnat, Gerome, Daubigny, Corot, or Manet, together with a selection of subjects entirely foreign, and therefore imitative. Evidences are accumulating, however, which show that some of them are endeavouring to give expression to their own individuality, and to rescue their identity from the subservience in which it has been merged. They in turn lay claim to Eastman Johnson as one of their number, because his style (a quality which young America at least estimates at its true value), while wholly his own, suggests the technique of the contemporary continental masters. Thus justified and applauded, he may fairly be described as a representative American. [Benjamin, The Modern School of Art, pp. 229–30; quoted Hills 1974, pp. 171–72.]
However, much as Johnson might try to respond to the changes of subject matter and style of the younger painters of the 1880s, he was not wholly one of them because the content was too alien to the social and moral values of his generation. The sophisticated tourist’s “value-free” curiosity about the spectacle of “the other”—the impulse behind such John Singer Sargent paintings as Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (1877, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), shown at the 1878 Society of American Artists exhibition—was replacing the patriot’s ideal of community and deep attachment to the soil. This older ideal had been Johnson’s attraction to Jules Breton and was the message of The Cranberry Harvest. Instead, in 1880, Johnson returned to portraiture and seems to have abandoned scenes of “typical everyday life.” Those late paintings that we might refer to as genre painting, so often were portraits, especially of the old sea captains on Nantucket. As he saw in these figures a generation that was passing away, so, too, were the old attitudes about painting slipping away.
Portraiture has been a major type of art since ancient times; rulers and people of influence realized the political importance of having representations of themselves available in order to reinforce their hegemony. Hence, we have a rich record of the heads (idealized, of course) of pharaohs, kings, and caesars carved into walls, painted as frescoes, created as mosaic floors and ceilings, standing as sculptures, and engraved on coins. In the United States, during the colonial period, artists painted portraits of well-known ministers, merchants, military men, and occasionally their wives and children; such works hung in the homes of the sitters or in government buildings and church antechambers. By the early decades of the nineteenth century portraits in oil commissioned by august institutions expanded to include literary and cultural figures, lower-ranking public officials, university presidents, officers of exclusive men’s clubs, lawyers, medical doctors, and heads of corporations, and, of course, often their respective families. The National Academy of Design required all Academicians to submit a painted portrait when they were inducted into the Academy. These were in the tradition of “state portraits” painted for posterity and usually hung in the institutions associated with the sitters but also in the stately homes of the upper classes to impress their legacies upon their descendants.
Portrait photography was gradually introduced in the 1840s, and became immensely popular during the Civil War years, particularly among working class soldiers and their families, but it was not until the early twentieth century that commissioned portrait photographs could compete with those done in oils.
However, in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century before photographic portraits had achieved prestige as convincing aesthetic representations, patrons often preferred the lower cost of charcoal or crayon portraits, which had the ability to project domestic intimacy. This is where Johnson got his start—by drawing portraits of his family and friends and eventually declaring himself a professional portrait draughtsman in Washington and Boston during the years 1847 to 1849. Even when he returned to the United States after his European sojourn, he continued to make charcoal and crayon portraits.
From 1850 to 1880 Johnson focused on genre paintings in oil, but after 1880 he increasingly devoted his professional time to painting portraits for private patrons and their families, government officials, men’s social clubs, chambers of commerce, hospitals, courthouses, and libraries. As a gauge of this production one turns to works he submitted to the annual National Academy spring exhibitions. From 1881 to 1900 he showed twenty-nine paintings; all but three were portraits. Although he occasionally painted genre paintings in his late years, many seem to have been for himself, and he exhibited them only occasionally. Following his death in April 1906, a major exhibition of his work at the Century Association and his estate sale at the American Art Association brought to the public a representative selection of his entire body of work.