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Eastman Johnson

 (1824 - 1906)
Eastman Johnson was active/lived in Massachusetts, Maine / Europe.  Eastman Johnson is known for portrait, genre-figure, and landscape painting.

Eastman Johnson

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Biography from the Archives of askART

A native of Lovell, Maine and raised in Augusta, Eastman Johnson earned a reputation as a renowned painter of sentimental genre.  His father operated a tavern in Lovell and also built homes there before moving the family to nearby Fryeburg in 1828.  Again the father operated a hotel, which gave his young son much exposure to a variety of human beings and activities.  When Eastman was ten, the family moved again, this time to Augusta, Maine, where Eastman became a clerk in a dry good store and where the family prospered.

He went to Boston at age sixteen to train as a lithographer but shortly after returned to Augusta and built his art career on more familiar territory.  From there he moved from town to town in the 1840s, making a living doing crayon portraits in eastern cities including Washington D.C. where he used a Senate committee room.  In 1849, he went to Dusseldorf, Germany to study under Emanuel Leutze, then traveled to Italy and France and spent four years at The Hague closely studying works of Rembrandt and Hals.  Known there as the American Rembrandt, he was offered the position of Court Painter, but declined as he wished to return to America.

In 1858, he established a studio in New York and did portraits of many prominent persons.  A year later, he was elected to the National Academy of Design with a painting titled Life in the South, regarded to that time as one of the most important genre paintings of blacks ever done by an American.  This was a period in his career when he championed Black Americans in the South, During the Civil War, he painted The Wounded Drummer Boy, based on an incident at the battle of Antietam, and exhibited at the National Academy, it became a public favorite.

In the 1871, he set up a studio and house with his wife and baby on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts and painted landscapes and interiors there, using local people as models.  One of his favorites was a bewiskered old sea captain named Charles Myrick.  His genre paintings seemed to lapse in popularity, and he turned increasingly and successfully to portraiture of rich and famous people such as John Quincy Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Biography from Spanierman Gallery
Renowned for his sophisticated portrayals of American rural life, Eastman Johnson was also one of the most cosmopolitan painters of his era.

Born in Lovell, Maine, in 1824, Johnson displayed an inclination for drawing at an early age.  He initiated his training around 1840, when he began an apprenticeship in Bufford's Lithography Shop in Boston.   Four years later, finding the employment dull and unchallenging, he returned to Maine and established himself as a portrait draftsman.

In 1845, he moved to Washington, D.C., producing likenesses of such figures as John Quincy Adams, Dolly Madison and Mrs. Alexander Hamilton.  A year later he was in Boston, where his sitters included Hawthorne, Emerson and Longfellow.

Johnson began to work in oil in 1848.  Desirous of developing his skills, he traveled to Germany in 1849, enrolling at the Düsseldorf Academy, in the company of such fellow Americans as Emanuel Leutze and Worthington Whittredge.   In the summer of 1851 he left Düsseldorf, visiting Amsterdam and London.   By the end of the year he had settled in The Hague.

For the next three and a half years he studied the work of such 17th century -Dutch and Flemish masters as Rembrandt and Van Dyck.   He subsequently developed a freer handling of paint, a richer colorism and a penchant for picturesque subjects.   In 1855, he went to Paris, continuing his studies under Thomas Couture; however, his sojourn was cut short by the death of his mother in the fall, necessitating his return to America.

Back in the Capitol City, Johnson painted a few portraits, but soon began to focus his attention on genre subjects.   In April of 1858, after making trips to Wisconsin and a brief stint in Cincinnati as a portraitist, Johnson moved to Manhattan, taking a studio in the University Building on Washington Square.

His first major genre piece was Old Kentucky Home - Life in the South (1859; New York Public Library, on loan to the New-York Historical Society), a depiction of the slave quarters in the backyard of his father's home.  It was shown at the 1859 annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design, to wide critical acclaim, under the title Life in the South.  His reputation secured, Johnson was elected as Associate member of the Academy that same year and a full academician a year later.

Throughout the 1860's and 1870's, Johnson worked with a variety of subjects that greatly appealed to the sentimental notions of his era.  His themes ranged from runaway slaves and heroic Union troops to rustic types and young women and children in decorative settings.

In 1871, Johnson built a summer home on Nantucket Island. He soon took up plein-air painting, utilizing a more vivid palette and taking a greater interest in light and shadow.  Johnson subsequently produced some of his best work, including The Cranberry Harvest (Coll.: Timken Art Gallery, San Diego).  He also painted the maple-sugaring camps around Fryeburg, Maine as well as a few landscapes and portraits.

During this period, his style was influenced by the French Barbizon School as well as the pre-Civil War American genre tradition.  During the 1880's, he turned almost exclusively to portraiture.

Johnson played a lively role in the New York Art milieu, holding memberships at the Century Association and the Union League Club and exhibiting with the Society of American Artists.   He was also one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870 and served as a trustee until 1871.  He died in New York in 1906.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Eastman Johnson began his career in art at the age of 16, after becoming engaged as an apprentice to the Bufford's lithography firm in Boston, Massachusetts.  However, in 1844 he returned to Maine to pursue a growing passion for portrait drawing.  A year later, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he was commissioned to draw the portraits of a number of that city's prominent citizens, including Dolly Madison and John Quincy Adams.  Other opportunities for portrait commissions brought him back to Boston, where he drew the likenesses of some of the nation's well-known romantic poets: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

Like many young American artists, he was inspired by the work of the contemporary German masters he viewed at New York's Düsseldorf Gallery.  He subsequently traveled to Germany and studied for two years at the Düsseldorf Academy.  It was there that he met and shared a studio with another American, Emanuel Leutze. Leutze is best known for his large painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851; Metropolitan Museum of Art)  Several other American artists studied at the Düsseldorf Academy during these years as well, including Albert Bierstadt and Worthington Whittredge.  Ultimately, Johnson found the German Romantic painting style of his teachers, Aschenbach and Lessing, a bit too insipid for his taste.  He visited London and Paris and then moved to The Hague, where he studied for four years.  It was in Amsterdam that Johnson studied the work of 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters Rembrandt and Van Dyck.  Their paintings inspired him to develop a freer handling of paint, a richer palette and a penchant for picturesque subjects.

While in the Netherlands he became known as the "American Rembrandt"—an image he partly inspired by attending society balls dressed as a 17th century Dutch burgher.  Johnson went on to Paris, where he studied with Thomas Couture.  He studied closely the peasant life paintings of Jules Breton and Jean François Millet, more for their celebration of honest rural life than any political statement of class warfare.  However, the premature death of his mother necessitated Johnson's return to America. 

He subsequently painted Indians and frontier life in Wisconsin, and worked briefly as a portraitist in Cincinnati, before moving to New York's Greenwich Village in 1858. Despite this new "cosmopolitan" existence, he became renowned for his sophisticated portrayals of American rural life.  His first major work depicted the slave quarters in the backyard of his father's home in Kentucky and was called Negro Life in the South, (later renamed Old Kentucky Home after Stephen Foster's Song.) It was shown in the exhibition Life in the South at the National Academy of Design. The work was well received in both the North and the South, so much so that his acclaim prompted the Academy to elect him to the position of academician.  During the next decades, Johnson developed themes that ranged from runaway slaves and heroic Union troops to more rustic depictions of young women and children.  He drew much of his material from his first-hand observations of the Union troops during the Civil War and created interpretations of the war's impact on Americans at home.  Like the work of his contemporaries, William Sidney Mount, George Caleb Bingham and Winslow Homer, his genre art was filled with humor, good nature and optimism.  As a result, his bucolic scenes emanate a happy, objective healthiness, a vitality and gentle human appeal.

We are indebted to Johnson scholar Patricia Hills and Ira Spanierman Gallery for the research they have shared on Eastman Johnson in preparation for Dr. Hills' forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.

Also, see John I. H. Baur, An American Genre Painter: Eastman Johnson, 1824-1906 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum, 1940).
2. Michael David Zellman, American Art Analog Vol. I. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), 209.
3. Michael David Zellman, American Art Analog Vol. II. (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), 378.
Written by the staff of the Columbus Museum, Georgia

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About  Eastman Johnson

Born:  1824 - Lovell, Maine
Died:   1906 - New York City
Known for:  portrait, genre-figure, and landscape painting

Essays referring to
Eastman Johnson

Civil War Art
Paris pre-1900