Eastman Johnson Catalogue Raisonné
Patricia Hills, PhD, Founder and Director | Abigael MacGibeny, MA, Project Manager

Technical Information on Johnson's Practices

1. Portrait Drawings

According to William A. Coffin, who wrote about Eastman Johnson for The Century [(October, 1894), p. 958] Johnson learned the rudiments of drawing from a teacher of drawing at his high school and “acquired a certain degree of skill with the pencil.” According to family records, when Johnson was sixteen, his father recognized his aptitude for art and placed him in a lithography shop in Boston where he designed titles for books and sheet music [See Hills, 1973]. By 1842, he had returned to Augusta, Maine and began sketching family and friends; eventually he followed his father to Washington, D.C. and then returned to Boston when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow commissioned him to draw portraits of Longfellow’s family and friends. 

Unlike his contemporary colleagues, such as Samuel Worcester Rowse (1822–1901) or the older Seth Wells Cheney (1810–1856), Johnson developed a style for drawing portraits that was unique to himself. For example, Johnson’s portrait Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1846, reveals that the facial modeling, in the half tones as well as the shadows, has been created by a fine network of short lines which follow the contours of the planes of the face. But the strokes coalesce into large masses; strong shadows against a homogeneous middle tone sculpt the face into a strongly felt three-dimensional form. In the hollows of the shadow—such as the right eve and along the edge of the nose—details disappear. In other words, Johnson perceived a face in terms of light and dark masses rather than the individuality of facial topography (as can be seen in the portrait drawings of Rowse). [Adapted from Hills, “Gentle Portraits of the Longfellow Era: The Drawings of Samuel Worcester Rowse,” 1981].  In 1846 or 1847 he began working in color by using pastels.

2. Genre, including interiors without people

There is no evidence that Johnson attempted genre painting before his European sojourn of 1849 to 1855. He went to Düsseldorf for training in oils, and spent time in the studio of the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze, where he made a copy of Leutze’s Washington Cross the Delaware for the Paris engraver Goupil. He moved to The Hague to study the Dutch masters, specifically Rembrandt, who made Johnson aware of the possibilities of using light to heighten dramatic action. His early work, such as The Card Players, 1853, shows a uniformly finished surface with attention to details. Here, light functions to reveal the various textures and local color of the trompe l’oeil details—the old man’s fur hat, the open drawer, the pipe and cup, the tattered book, the clock, the slate, and the curtains, to name only a few—details which compete with the anecdote for our attention. 

After four years in The Netherlands he decided to move to Paris to study with Thomas Couture, a popular teacher and the author of a popular book on artistic techniques. Couture stressed the importance of tones: the first step was to establish the highest lights and then to sketch in the darkest darks so that the mid-tones would be “true” and fall into place. Like Couture, Johnson learned to let the underpainting (usually a brownish tone brushed across the canvas before the composition was sketched in) function as some of the mid-tones, particularly in his paintings of interiors. Also, like Couture, Johnson often scumbles the painting, that is, he drags partially dried paint over paint already partially dried on the canvas. An opposite technique, “wet into wet” or “a la prima,” characterizes the art of John Singer Sargent.    

3. Landscapes

Johnson did few landscapes. We can speculate that he did the majority of them when he was on excursions to the forests of New England with his artist friends. Some landscapes portray homes in Nantucket, Massachusetts; but evidence is sketchy whether many of such landscapes were actually painted by Johnson. In general, the skies are painted simply with crisscrossing strokes to suggest atmosphere, but he does not articulate clouds. Foreground fields also show a crisscrossing of strokes to suggest the look of grass and field flowers without articulated details.

4. Portraits in Oil

It is reputed that Johnson’s first portrait in oil was done of his friend Worthington Whittredge in 1850–51 when they both were studying in Düsseldorf with Emanuel Leutze. Like his portrait drawings, Johnson’s portraits throughout his career are characterized by close attention to the chiaroscuro effects of light and shadow on the features of a subject. The eyes are usually painted with translucent colors and almost always there is a highlight on the pupils, even when the eyes are in shadow. Graphite outlining characterizes the rendering of lips and edges of the nose. For the features of his portraits of men Johnson often applies his paint in patches and scumbles where broad highlights exist, such as the forehead and cheeks. The portraits of women are usually done more delicately. Some of the late portraits of his career exhibit other characteristics that suggest another hand may have worked on the portraits.