Eastman Johnson’s paintings and drawings
Eastman Johnson was an early American painter who I only came across recently – I like his very natural painting entitled ‘Portrait Of A Child’ c.1879 (see bottom of page) which was modelled by his daughter Ethel, which you’ll also find among this selection of child portraits. Johnson’s life spanned the years of 1824 to 1906 and his style changed accordingly from a quite tight and smooth application of paint to much looser work as he deliberately altered his paint handling to keep up with a new generation of ‘Realist’ painters and their fast brushwork.
This little sketch is my very favourite work by Johnson. Quite obviously drawn from life and only meant to be a study (he’s saving space and putting two sketches on one page) it shows a young African American man. Wearing boots, jacket, and shirt which suggest a livery costume it is likely he was employed to assist with military horses, coaches or wagons. If it was a preparatory sketch for a painting, then it was never developed for that purpose or at least a painting in which the man appears isn’t known. Showing just what a good draughtsman Johnson was, it’s beautifully and accurately drawn and I love the relaxed and confident and characterful pose of the young man, leaning back in his chair. It’s unmistakably a portrait of an individual and as such is very far from the stereotypical ways nineteenth century painters so often depicted those of other races.
Best known for his genre paintings, Johnson’s subject matter was fascinating from a social history point of view, presenting life in the deep South and with titles like Negro Life At The South (below) and A Ride For Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves. Johnson’s depiction of the life of slaves in Negro Life At The South is one of the best known paintings depicting slavery and has been much disputed – the painting might be considered controversial for its time as it depicts people of different skin tones, hinting at their mixed racial ancestry and the likelihood of white slave owner fathers or grandfathers. However the people appear happy and at leisure – resting, making music, socialising – so this is hardly a balanced depiction of the brutal life of a slave but sanitised and full of stereotypes straight from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It clearly shows family groups, rather than hinting at the cruel way that slavery tore apart families. And yet the house they inhabit is clearly shown to be dilapidated, which might be read as an abolitionist’s indictment of the slaves’ living conditions.
Eastman Johnson: Negro Life At The South (The Old Kentucky Home), 1859
Ride For Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves seems to me to be entirely sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, depicting centre stage a slave family of two parents and a child trying to outride their pursuers. Johnson wrote that the painting was based on his observations of a slave family attempting to escape to freedom during a Civil War battle – he inscribed it on the back with the following words: “A veritible [sic] incident / in the civil war seen by / myself at Centerville / on this morning of / McClellan’s advance towards Manassas March 2, 1862 / Eastman Johnson.” . Clearly the sight struck him quite deeply, or at least captured his imagination and undoubtedly the slave family – depicted free from stereotype – are the heroes of this large painting. Johnson never exhibited the painting it appears – maybe due to it’s controversial nature. In another painting entitled The Lord Is My Shepherd he depicts an African American man (possibly a serving Union soldier and perhaps previously a slave) learning to read by studying the bible.
Although my art history professors would no doubt have reminded me that an artist (unless a hobbyist) will always have their main eye on the art market in terms of their subject selection, one can’t help feeling that Johnson’s frequent depiction of African American subjects – both slaves and free men – might seem to suggest he was sympathetic, or at least somewhat empathetic with their plight. The painting seems to suggest that literacy will bring about emancipation – ‘if you want to keep a people subjugated, don’t teach them to read’. Another possible message might be that faith in the Lord might bring an improvement in his conditions – he is thought to be reading Exodus (he is looking near the front of the bible, with its famous message ‘let my people go’ which resonated so strongly with the African American cause. Johnson also made a number of studies of people of the Ojibwa (Chippewa) tribe, and it seems to me that he was interested to depict the people of the United States in all it’s ethnic diversity. He had travelled in the area, and met Ojibwa people whose names he included in their portraits. As well as portraits he made sketches of their dwellings and activities.
Eastman Johnson: Portrait Of A Child, 1879