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Jonathan Eastman Johnson

Jonathan Eastman Johnson

The American painter Jonathan Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) excelled at genre paintings of life in America during the 1860s and 1870s. He also drew and painted many portraits.

Eastman Johnson was born in August 1824 at Lovell, Maine. His family soon moved to nearby Fryeburg. He spent his youth in Augusta, the capital, for his father was Maine's secretary of state. At the age of 15 Johnson left home to work in a dry-goods store in New Hampshire. Because of his interest in drawing, he worked for a year in a lithographic shop in Boston. In 1842 he returned to Augusta and began making and selling crayon portraits at modest prices. Successful, he drew portraits in Cambridge, Mass., and Newport, R.I., and in 1845 he moved to Washington, D.C., where within a year he had drawn such famous people as Daniel Webster and Dolly Madison. In 1846 he moved to Boston at the invitation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose portrait he drew, as well as those of Longfellow's family and friends. He remained in Boston for 3 years.

It was not until 1848 that Johnson made his first oil painting, a portrait of his grandmother. The following year he went to Europe to improve his art. He studied for 2 years at the Royal Academy in Düsseldorf, Germany. After a brief visit to France and Italy, Johnson spent 3 1/2 years at The Hague, Holland, where he made a close study of Dutch 17th-century painting, particularly Rembrandt. Known in The Hague as the "American Rembrandt," he was offered, but refused, the post of court painter.

Intent on portraying American subjects, Johnson returned to America in 1855. Shortly afterward, while visiting a sister in Wisconsin, he made paintings of American Indians. In 1859 in Washington, D.C., he made his first large genre painting, titled Life in the South (today called Old Kentucky Home). This won him acclaim and election to the National Academy in New York.

During the Civil War, Johnson followed the Union Army, sketching subjects for genre paintings, the most famous of which is the Wounded Drummer Boy. During the next 2 decades he spent much of his time painting New Englanders of all ages at work and at play. It is for these that he is now famous.

At Fryeburg, Johnson made many informal oil sketches around a sugar-making camp. In the early 1870s he visited Nantucket, where he painted a group of old men sitting around a stove (Nantucket School of Philosophy) and the large Corn Husking Bee. At Kennebunkport, Maine, he painted a group of intimate little pictures of his family that are among his best works.

As the demand for his genre paintings decreased, Johnson's popularity as a portraitist increased, and after 1880 he painted few genre subjects. For the most part his commissioned portraits, though they brought him wealth, are dark and dull. Toward the end of his life he made three brief trips to Europe. He died in New York City on April 5, 1906.

Further Reading

John I.H. Baur, An American Genre Painter: Eastman Johnson, 1824-1906 (1940), the catalog for the 1940 Johnson exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, contains a brief life of the artist, illustrations of some of his work, and a listing of located and unlocated works. Since 1940, additional works have been located. Patricia Hills, Eastman Johnson, is the catalog of the 1972 Johnson exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. □

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