(Lovell, Maine, 1824 - 1906, New York, New York)
The two major themes of nineteenth-century American painting were landscape and genre, and Eastman Johnson was the preeminent painter of genre subjects in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Today his work is seen as the culmination of that movement which featured highly sentimental, anecdotal themes, and he was essentially its last great practitioner. (1)
Johnson was born in Lovell, Maine, in 1824, and while still a child moved with his family to Fryeburg and then to Augusta, Maine. His father was first a tavern keeper, later a postmaster, and eventually an innkeeper in Fryeburg. In 1834, the family moved to Augusta where Johnson’s father prospered, and eventually became secretary of state under Democratic Governor John Fairfield in 1840. Johnson is believed to have begun his training as an artist in a Boston lithography shop around 1840. By 1846, he had rejoined his family when they moved to Washington, D.C., where his father had been appointed chief clerk in the Navy Department’s Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair when Fairfield was elected to the U.S. Senate. By this point, Johnson was an accomplished draughtsman, and for a portion of 1846 he made portrait heads of notable Washingtonians, and later in the year travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts at the invitation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was then teaching at Harvard, and he commissioned Johnson to create portrait drawings of a group of his friends and colleagues, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne.
In August of 1849, Johnson, accompanied by fellow painter George Henry Hall (1825-1913), traveled to Europe for further art study. The two elected to begin their training at the Royal Academy in Dusseldorf, and Johnson soon became associated with the studio of the American painter Emmanuel Leutze (1816-1868), that was then located in Dusseldorf. Neither Johnson nor Hall was satisfied with the course of study at Dusseldorf, and both moved on to further study elsewhere. By August of 1851, Johnson was in London, and then went to the Netherlands where he spent the winter at The Hague. He was accepted in the art community there and stayed, inspired by studying the works of seventeenth-century Dutch masters such as Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), Jan Steen (1626-1679), Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667), and Gerard Ter Borch (1617-1681). From study of these artists he derived, “the evocative power of understated narrative and expressive potential of well-worn utilitarian objects….He inclined toward quietism rather than gregariousness, toward the representation of introspection rather than communication, and toward the sparing use of detail rather than a profusion of objects.” (2)
After four years in the Netherlands, he traveled to Paris in 1855 intending to continue his training, however the death of his mother led him to return home in November to his family then still living in Washington, D.C. In the summer of 1856, he joined his sister and her husband in Superior, Wisconsin to participate in new settlement and land speculation. While living in Superior during 1856 and 1857, he drew and painted a number of portraits of Ojibwa Indians and other compositions featuring Indian subject matter. In 1858, he left both Wisconsin and Washington determined to establish a studio and professional art practice in New York.
Up until 1859 Eastman Johnson had largely been recognized as a draughtsman and painter of portraits, and like many artists, he had supported himself largely on the basis of a portrait practice. However the advent of photography, and particularly the Daguerrotype process, began to make portraiture less lucrative. The social upheaval that preceded the Civil War also precipitated a shift in art patronage, as the wealth of the nation began to shift away from the rural areas and into the commercial and manufacturing spheres. Johnson was caught up in this transition as he began his career in New York, choosing to follow the prevailing dictum of art criticism, that America’s young painters should adopt characteristically “American” subject matter.
Genre painting gained popularity with both art collectors and the general public in the first half of the nineteenth century, primarily through the success of artists such as William Sidney Mount (1807-1868). “During the second quarter of the nineteenth century there was a move away from the dominance of “old guard”, aristocratic collectors toward the patronage of an ascendant class of wealthy bourgeois merchants and businessmen. The 1830s and 1840s are the key decades of the shift and were precisely the years in which Mount created the majority of his most acclaimed and admired works. They appealed to a small group of patrons—both aristocratic and bourgeois—who were among the most important and influential cultural figures of the era.” (3) Mass reproduction and distribution of genre works by publishers such as Currier and Ives, and subscription groups such as the American Art Union, meant that the general public also gained an appreciation for these works considered emblematic of American life and culture.
Eastman Johnson’s earliest success exhibiting a genre subject came in 1859 with "Negro Life in the South", exhibited at the spring exhibition of the National Academy of Design. It was a significant critical success, and he became an Academician of the National Academy of Design in the following year. During the years of the Civil War, Johnson exhibited a small group of war-related subjects, however he maintained a greater emphasis on depicting the daily life of Americans and their productive activities. For example, in the early 1860s he made a series of studies of the process of making maple sugar syrup. (4) He depicted multiple compositions showing the communal efforts of gathering the sugar sap and boiling it down to create the syrup. Johnson’s “… reputation was nothing if not secure by 1869. It is true that most tributes to his work emphasized its wholesomeness and attention to the familiar and even common aspects of life….” He was, “unquestionably the first among American genre painters.” (5)
In addition to his success as an artist, Johnson became further settled in his domestic life in 1869 when he married Elizabeth Buckley; the following summer they and their young daughter went for the first time to the island of Nantucket. As an artist, Johnson responded very positively to the environment of the island, and in 1871, he bought property on North Shore Hill, erecting both a cottage and studio to which he returned each summer thereafter. It was on Nantucket that he made the series of paintings depicting the annual cranberry harvest, and which resulted in perhaps his best-known painting, "The Cranberry Harvest", exhibited in 1880 at the National Academy of Design.
After 1880, the taste of the art world and American collectors began to shift decidedly toward work that was directly influenced by contemporary European painting styles, brought to the U.S. by younger artists trained in Munich and Paris. Painters such as William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) and others of their generation began teaching a style more reflective of the contemporary styles of the Parisian academies, salons and the avant garde French painters. As a result, conventional genre scenes, with their naturalistic narrative style, lost favor toward the end of the century. Johnson’s work of the 1880s was dominated by portrait commissions of such leaders of industry and commerce as William H. Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould, as well as the U.S. Presidents of the Gilded Age, Benjamin Harrison, Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland. At his death in 1906 Johnson was mourned as an artist of great integrity and influence, who had delivered an inspiring and genteel image of life that reflected the aspirations of the American society of his era.
(1) Sources for Johnson’s biography are "Eastman Johnson: Painting America", Teresa A. Carbone and Patricia Hills, ed., (New York, NY: Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with Rizzoli International Publications, 1999); Patricia Hills, "Eastman Johnson", exh. cat., (New York: Clarkson Potter and the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1972) and Patricia Hills, "The Genre Painting of Eastman Johnson: The sources and development of his Style and Themes", (New York: Garland, 1977).
(2) "Eastman Johnson: Painting America", p. 21.
(3) "William Sidney Mount: Painter of American Life", Deborah J. Johnson, ed., (New York: The American Federation of the Arts, 1998), p.109.
(4) Although he apparently made the studies with the intention of creating a large, multi-figure composition that he would formally exhibit, he seems never to have made the developed picture. His process, however, carried over to the later series that he made depicting the work of cranberry harvesters on Nantucket in the 1870s.
(5) "Eastman Johnson: Painting America", p. 72.