Eastman Johnson enjoyed a long and successful career as one of America’s preeminent genre and portrait painters of the late nineteenth century. In 1867, Henry Tuckerman, in his influential Book of the Artists, said of Eastman Johnson that “no one of our painters has more truly caught and perfectly delineated the American rustic. . . ” ([New York: G. P. Putnam & Son, 1867], p. 467). Alternating precise descriptions of paintings with general praise, Tuckerman continued: “In all his works we find vital expression, . . . invariably characteristic; trained in the technicalities of his art, keen in his observation, and natural in his feeling, we have a genre painter in Eastman Johnson who has elevated and widened its naturalistic scope and its national significance. His pictures are in constant demand, and purchased before they leave the easel. All American collectors seek and prize them” (pp. 469–70). Tuckerman had been Johnson’s neighbor in the New York University Building, facing Washington Square, where fellow tenants included, at various times, Winslow Homer (after 1862), Samuel F. B. Morse, Daniel Huntington, Thomas W. Dewing, George Inness, and John Henry Twachtman. (For the fullest account of Johnson’s life and work, see Patricia Hills, The Genre Painting of Eastman Johnson: The Sources and Development of His Style and Themes [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977].)
Born in Lowell, Maine, to a politically prominent family, Johnson began his artistic studies in Boston as an apprentice in Bufford’s lithographic shop. Soon thereafter, he began to execute portrait drawings in crayon. Working in Augusta, Maine, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Newport, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C., between 1841 and 1849, Johnson produced likenesses of some of the most notable Americans of the day. In 1849 Johnson departed for Düsseldorf, where he studied for two years with Emanuel Leutze, and made regular visits to France and Italy. Johnson then spent four years at The Hague, where he was known as the “American Rembrandt,” and was offered the post of Court Painter to Dutch royalty. Upon his return to the United States in 1855, he worked in Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C., before settling permanently in New York City in 1858.
In 1859, Johnson completed his most ambitious painting to date, a chef-d’oeuvre that became the most famous work of his career: Life in the South (Old Kentucky Home) (oil on canvas, 36 x 45 1/4 in.; The New-York Historical Society). Probably begun in 1858 in Washington, D.C., the large-scale painting was exhibited under the title Negro Life at the South at the annual spring exhibition of the National Academy of Design, New York, in 1859. The work was greeted with tremendous acclaim, and Johnson was immediately elected an associate member of the National Academy, promptly followed in 1860 by full academician status.
During the Civil War, Johnson was based in New York City. In 1858, he rented a studio at the University Building. Johnson was a convivial member of the New York City artists’ community, joining the Century Association in 1862, and the Union League Club in 1867. In that same year he was a member of the council of the National Academy of Design, and, in 1868–69, taught at the school there. In the summer of 1868, Johnson spent time in the Catskill Mountains, possibly in the company of Sanford Gifford, Jervis McEntee, or Worthington Whittredge, all close friends (Hills, p. 109). In the war years, Johnson alternated his activities, spending some time traveling with the Union Army, recording details that he incorporated into paintings through the 1870s, and wintering in Fryeburg, Maine, where he sketched and painted the maple sugar harvesters he remembered from his youth. At the same time, he cultivated a special niche as a painter of American rural life, presented in terms that were positive, wholesome, and nostalgic for a simpler (even if mythical) era.
Johnson was a frequent painter of children, sometimes portrayed in the innocent diversions of childhood, but not infrequently shown engaged in typical types of childhood mischief. Indeed, from the 1850s through the 1870s, Eastman Johnson was, along with Winslow Homer, the leading voice in American art on the subject of children and young adulthood. Throughout this period he applied himself to a number of variations on scenes of children, producing and exhibiting a large body of work, and receiving the acclaim of both critics and collectors. While Johnson’s works occasionally embrace the single-note humor that was so common for representations of children in the fine arts, his works are distinctive because Johnson more imbued his paintings with life and complexity, thereby creating warm-blooded portrayals of his youthful subjects.