About Eastman Johnson
- Brief Biography of Eastman Johnson
- Significance of Eastman Johnson to the History of American Art
- Significance of Eastman Johnson's Pictures to Contemporary Concerns
Eastman Johnson (1824–1906) was a leading American genre and portrait painter of the middle-to-late nineteenth century. He was born in Lovell, Maine and began his career in his early twenties as a portrait draughtsman, working in Maine, Washington D.C., and Boston, where he drew the poets and intellectuals in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s circle. In 1849, he went to Europe to pursue academic training in oil painting. He stayed two years in Düsseldorf, studying at both the Academy and the studio of Emanuel Leutze. He then moved to The Hague to study the Dutch Old Masters, and there he established himself as a portrait painter; from that experience he became known as the “American Rembrandt.” In 1855, he decided to relocate to Paris to study with Thomas Couture, who worked in a modern style for those times. His stay was cut short when he received news his mother had died. Returning to the United States in late 1855, he first lived in Washington, D.C., where his family then resided, and moved to New York City to advance his art career. He was one of the first of his generation to draw and paint the Ojibwe living in the Lake Superior area in 1857. He became an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1859, the year he exhibited his masterwork Negro Life at the South; the following year he was elected a full Academician.
Johnson became known as a genre painter of American scenes, and critics especially praised his paintings of Black people. During the Civil War years he followed the Union troops and painted scenes he had witnessed as well as domestic scenes of the home front. He also took time off to paint the maple sugar spring harvest in Maine in the early 1860s. He married Elizabeth Buckley of Troy, New York, in 1869 and may have briefly visited Nantucket, Massachusetts that summer. But beginning in 1870 he spent whole summers in Nantucket, where he painted scenes of women outdoors, the fall cranberry harvest, and the older generation of whaling ship captains. During the 1880s he increasingly painted portraits. He completed over 300 portraits of leading New York business and civic leaders, including Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and William Vanderbilt, and the actor Edwin Booth. He painted from life three U.S. Presidents: Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison. He also did about 200 portraits of women, children, and groups. He was active in many New York art organizations, belonged to the Century Association and the Union League Club of New York, and was a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sadakichi Hartmann, the modernist critic, wrote on Johnson for The International Studio in 1908, after the artist’s death: “The whole period is remembered but by a handful of men and they are invariably those who reflected best the taste and aspirations of their time . . . Eastman Johnson . . . is today generally recognized as the leading genre painter of America.”
Today we see Johnson as a painter who brought more sophisticated painting techniques to America, who extended the range of “American” subjects, often transforming traditional European themes, and who brought a more dignified and democratic content to genre painting. He spoke to and for his own generation, and he was a great influence on a number of genre painters such as Thomas Waterman Wood, J. G. Brown, Thomas Hovenden, George C. Lambdin, and the young Winslow Homer.
What can we learn today from the study of Eastman Johnson, his artist contemporaries and their paintings, and the visual culture of nineteenth-century America?
As Patricia Hills wrote in 1974, as a conclusion to the exhibition catalogue of American genre painting, The Painters’ America: Rural and Urban Life, 1810–1910 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974):
. . . The painters’ America represented neither conditions nor events, neither the typical nor the specific, but an artful blend of fact and fantasy, or realities and dreams. That genre painting that has survived and has been treasured reassured its select audience of a continuity between the past and the present. But the paintings did not simply serve their patrons as a nostalgic respite from the pressures of the day. Widely exhibited and reproduced, many also contributed to and perpetuated nationalistic and elitist attitudes which are with us still.
The benefit we gain by examining Johnson’s works specifically is to see the slippages and even subversions within his own paintings. By calling out and studying his attitudes as reflected in his art and life, and those of his contemporaries, we can learn more about the historical context in which we find ourselves today and act on that knowledge.