Eastman Johnson (1824–1906)

A distinguished American painter of sentimental, Victorian-genre images

By Alexandra A. Jopp

One of the most elegant artists of the last half of the nineteenth century, Eastman Johnson became famous for his insights into American culture and his efforts to establish the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

In the nineteenth century, esteemed American artists were often credited with titles that tied them to Europe: Thomas Moran was the “American Turner,” John Henry Twachtman was the “American Monet,” Childe Hassam was the “American Sisley,” and Eastman Johnson was granted the appellation of the “American Rembrandt.” Though such comparisons to Old World brilliance were meant as honors, American artists often rejected them and worked to create a unique style that was detached from European models. Thus Johnson, even while working in seventeenth-century Dutch traditions, painted distinctly American subjects.

Eastman Johnson was born in Lovell, Maine, in 1824 and grew up in Fryeburg and Augusta. At an early age, he began working in the dry goods business, and in 1840, he was sent to a lithography shop in Boston. However, he found lithography to be monotonous and unfulfilling, and four years later, he returned to Augusta and worked as a crayon portraitist. He had a natural aptitude for art and attended art school in New York before moving to Washington, D.C. Working for the U.S. Senate, he painted portraits of Dolly Madison, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and other famous public figures. Soon after, in 1846, he went back to Boston, where he opened a studio in Tremont Temple and produced portraits in crayon of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In 1849, with the encouragement of the American Art Union, Johnson, accompanied by George Henry Hall, sailed to Europe for what would be six years of study. Johnson settled in Düsseldorf, Germany, a popular destination for young American artists. He enrolled in Düsseldorf Académie, where he started to work with colors, and in 1851, he entered the studio of Emanuel Leutze. During a stay in The Hague, Johnson studied seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, mainly works by Rembrandt and Anthony Van Dyck, and captured old Dutch traditions. Under this Dutch influence, the artist’s style evolved to include richer colors, dynamic design and exciting contrasts of light and shadow. Before returning to Washington in 1855, he spent two months in Paris, where he worked briefly with the French academic painter, Thomas Couture.

In the two years after his return to the United States, Johnson spent time in Superior, Wisc., painting the Indians of that area. After a short stay in Cincinnati in 1858, he moved to New York and opened a studio in the Old University Building in Washington Square. At an April 1859 exhibition at the National Academy of Design, he showed three crayon drawings, one of which – Negro Life in the South, or Old Kentucky Home – would come to be regarded as his most original and remarkable work. This large painting – which depicts a moment in the life of slaves in the nation’s capital – brought fame to Johnson and established him as a major American genre artist. Art critic Henry Tuckerman saw in the picture an indication of the progress of genre painting: “We realize how national genre art … has advanced. … .Not only is the style more finished, but the significance is deeper, the sentiment more delicate.” 1

In 1869, Johnson married Elizabeth Buckley of Troy, N.Y., with whom he had a daughter. The following year, he visited Nantucket, Mass., and in 1871, he built a house there where he would spend his summers. In Nantucket, he worked with rural subjects and produced a series depicting cranberry harvesting.

Over the course of his fruitful career, Johnson developed a reputation as an accomplished and adept painter of not only individual and group portraits but also urban scenes and landscapes. He had a feel for color, and his depictions of groups of farmers are often charismatic in tone. His subjects range from farm scenes to country house interiors to rural genre painting. The Dutch influence can be seen in paintings such as The Mount Vernon Kitchen (1857) and Susan Ray’s Kitchen (1875).

In 1906, at the age of 82, an ill and feeble Johnson began to show signs of heart weakness. He died in New York, surrounded by his wife Elizabeth, his daughter Ethel and his son-in-law Alfred Ronald Conkling.

II. Chronology

1824 Born on July 29 in Lovell, Maine, to Philip Carrigan Johnson and Mary Kimball Chandler
1840 Began training at Boston lithography shop
1845 Moved with parents to Washington, D.C.
1849 Traveled to Düsseldorf, Germany, where he studied at Royal Academy
1855 Worked for several months with Thomas Couture in Paris
1856 Returned to United States
1856-57 Made extended visits to Superior, Wisc., where he painted studies of local Ojibwa life as well as distinguished portraits of Indians
1858 Painted Negro Life in the South (or Old Kentucky Home), which established his reputation as an artist; moved to a studio in New York City.
1859 Negro Life at the South exhibited for first time at National Academy of Design in New York City
1860 Elected to be an academician at National Academy of Design
1869 Married Elizabeth Buckley of Troy, N.Y.
1880s Gradually gave up genre painting to work almost exclusively in portraits
1906 Died at his home in New York

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Art Institute of Chicago
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Maine
Brooklyn Museum, New York City
Butler Institute of American Art, Ohio
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
Colby College Museum of Art, Maine
Currier Gallery of Art, New Hampshire
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina
Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts
Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, Mississippi
Maier Museum of Art at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, Virginia
Maryland State Archives
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts, New York City
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.
New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut
New-York Historical Society
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
San Diego Museum of Art, California
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Smithsonian Institution Art Inventories
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket
The Walters Art Museum, Maryland
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, California
U.S. Senate Art Collection
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

IV. Exhibitions

1861-1900 National Academy of Design
1861-80, 1887 Brooklyn Art Association
1862-63, 1877, 1893-94, 1899-1902 Boston Athenaeum, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art
1877-1903 Boston Art Club
1889, 1900 Art Institute of Chicago (medal)
1889, 1900 Paris Expo (medal)
1898-1901 Carnegie Institute
1901 Pan-American Expo, Buffalo (gold)
1904 St. Louis Expo (gold)
2004 Francine Clark Art Institute

V. Memberships

Lotos Club
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Municipal Art Society
National Academy of Design
Society of American Artists
Century Club
Union League Club

VI. Notes

1: Patricia Johnston, Seeing High and Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 106.

VII. Suggested Resources

Baur J.I.H. Eastman Johnson, 1824-1906. Brooklyn, New York, 1940.

Hills P. The Genre Painting of Eastman Johnson: The Sources and Development of His Style and Themes. Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1977.