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

Technical Information on Johnson's Practices

Patricia Hills

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 1977]. By 1842, he had returned to Augusta, Maine and began sketching family and friends; eventually he followed his father to Washington, D.C. He 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. He expertly handled the medium of charcoal and would indicate highlights by use of the “stump” (often tightly rolled-up paper sticks). For the brightest highlights he would use white chalk or an opaque watercolor. The actual drawing is delicate. 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 eye 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 contrasting portrait drawings of Rowse) [Adapted from Hills, 1981b]. 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—1855. He went to Düsseldorf for training in oils, and spent time in the studio of the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze, where he worked on a copy of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware for the Paris engraver Goupil. In 1851 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 Méthode et entretiens d’atelier, a favorite 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 “à la prima,” characterizes the art of John Singer Sargent [See Albert Boime, The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, New York, 1971]. The result of the use of the underpainting for mid-tones and the layer of scumbling often meant an uneven surface to his work. Inexperienced “restorers” have often tried to fill in what appears to be missing paint in many passages.

Another characteristic of many of Johnson’s figure paintings and portraits is light graphite lines outlining edges of the figure, the silhouette of a cheek or nose, and lips. This suggests that Johnson may have used some sort of method to transfer an image on paper to the support. One such drawing on tracing paper exists, but more research needs to be done on his techniques. As conservator Sheldon Keck writes in “A Use of Infra-Red Photography in the Study of Technique,” Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts, 1941:

Johnson's procedure, as thus reconstructed, seems to have been to prepare carefully in advance of his painting a drawing of the whole or of important parts. In this he determined as well the modelling and chiaroscuro to be used in his painting. He next traced the drawing and transferred the outline to the picture priming. He diligently followed this outline in his application of paint. The drawing of the 'Girl with Glass' of which a painted version appears in 'The New Bonnet' illustrates this conclusion. The measurements of the drawn and painted figures coincide and the infra-red photograph reveals the guide lines in the painting.

Unfortunately, to Johnson and later to his widow Elizabeth, such drawings seemed to be disposable.

I have found no examples of Johnson’s painting on actual wood panels, although early sources might say “painted on wood.” Many of Johnson’s genre studies were painted on specially prepared boards made from wood pulp and a binder. Such “artists’ composition board” could be bought in large sheets, which Johnson would cut down to accommodate a particular composition. Alexander Katlan, who has written extensively on academy boards, notes that they are “flexible paper cardboard supports, created for quick oil sketches but not for finished paintings, and were available as early as 1835” [Katlan, “Academy boards and canvas boards,“ Conservation of Easel Paintings, edited by Joyce Hill Stoner and Rebecca Rushfield, Routledge: New York, 2012, p.113].  When a documentary source reports that the support is “academy board,” that term has been retained. Katlan notes that some academy boards carry trademarks from companies such as Winsor & Newton, Edward Dechaux, and Goupil and Co.; however, I have not seen any such trademark stamps on the versos of Johnson’s paintings to date.

Such paper/pulp board paintings have a slightly rough surface.  It has been suggested by some conservators that the roughness has come from the poor quality of the cardboard pulp used to create many of the boards.

More often, major pictures (such as those sent to exhibitions and to fulfill commissions) are oil on canvas. 

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, Johnson’s skies are painted simply with crisscrossing strokes to suggest atmosphere, but he does not articulate clouds, as Dutch landscape painters usually did. Foreground fields also show a crisscrossing of strokes to suggest the look of grass and field flowers without articulated details. When he does his rare woodland landscapes, he usually uses atmospheric perspective with details in the foreground more carefully articulated.

Watercolors by Johnson are not known.

4. Portraits in Oil

It is reputed that Johnson’s first portrait in oil was done of his friend Worthington Whittredge in 1850–1851 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. Commissioned portraits are almost all oil on canvas. 

Johnson is known to have done posthumous portraits from photographs; these often do not have life-like qualities, such as highlights on the pupils. Some of the late portraits of his career exhibit characteristics that suggest another hand may have worked to complete those portraits. 

Please note that the information on this and all pages is periodically reviewed and subject to change.
Citation: Hills, Patricia. "Technical Information on Johnson's Practices." Eastman Johnson Catalogue Raisonné. https://www.eastmanjohnson.org/section/index.php?id=techinicalinfo (accessed on August 16, 2022).