EASTMAN JOHNSON (1824–1906)
The Confab, about 1877–78
Oil on board, 22 x 12 1/4 in.
Signed (at lower right): E. Johnson
RECORDED: S. G. W. Benjamin, “Eastman Johnson,” in Wilfrid Meynell, ed., The Modern School of Art (New York: Cassell & Company, 1883), p. 228 // Patricia Hills, The Genre Painting of Eastman Johnson: The Sources and Development of His Style and Themes (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977), p. 143
EX COLL.: Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Brown, Roxbury, Massachusetts; to Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1979 (acc. no. 1979.22); to sale, Christie’s New York, December 6, 1991, lot 39; to private collection; to [private sale, Christie’s New York, January 2015]; to private collection, until the present
The Confab is one of a number of paintings Johnson executed in 1877 and 1878 while visiting his sister, Harriet May, and her family at their summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Johnson’s barn paintings are a subgroup of Kennebunkport works from 1877–78, in which Johnson’s own daughter, the May children, and other neighbors posed for the artist in a series of works celebrating the rustic ideal of childhood. Other works from the series include The Quiet Hour (1877, private collection); In the Hayloft (1877–78, San Diego Museum of Art); Girl in Barn (Sarah May) (about 1877–78, private collection); and two versions of Barn Swallows (1878, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire). Here, two adorable children have roosted themselves on the massive crossbeam of the barn, up above the hay loft, lost in conversation. Writing about Johnson’s barn subjects, Johnson scholar Patricia Hills notes: “The barn’s crossbeam and its support break the compositions of these paintings into rectangular units which suggest a more modern sense of design.... Yet, in more finished versions…, Johnson could not resist an old-fashioned, picturesque touch here and there, such as a yellow hat against the green hay, or a bouquet of flowers on the crossbeam” (Hills, p. 142–43).
Hills characterizes The Confab as a “more finished version” of the Johnson’s barn series (p. 143). S. G. W. Benjamin, in his entry on the artist in The Modern School of Art (New York: 1883), describes the scene in detail: "A little boy and girl six or seven years old are having an innocent little chat in a hay-mow; that is, they are resting from their romp on a beam in a barn and enjoying an infantile flirtation. It is an idyll of childhood" (as quoted in Hills, p. 143).