San Diego Museum of Art

photo: John Hazeltine

Balboa Park, San Diego, CA



Eastman Johnson: Painting America


One of the most important American painters of the 19th century will be highlighted at the San Diego Museum of Art this spring. Eastman Johnson: Painting America is a comprehensive retrospective of Johnson' s career, which spanned the Civil War through the turn of the century. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the presentation includes 68 paintings and 32 drawings, and will be on view Feb. 26 through May 21, 2000. (left: Fiddling His Way, 1866, oil on canvas, Chrysler Museum of Art)

"Johnson's paintings now stand as American icons--extraordinary for their originality and quintessentially American subject matter," said D. Scott Atkinson, SDMA curator of American art. "This exhibition includes all of Johnson's subjects--from early portrait drawings, to Civil War subjects, domestic interiors, highly acclaimed rural genre and late portraits."

This full scale critical examination of Eastman Johnson' s work is divided into thematic sections. The first section focuses on his talents in the medium of drawing.Included are portraits of Emerson, Hawthorne and Longfellow, as well as a selection of never-before-exhibited studies, now in private and public collections, that were completed while Johnson resided in The Netherlands, from 1851 to 1855. Also included is a group of portraits of Ojibwe Indians produced in Wisconsin in the 1850s. (left: In the Hayloft, c. 1877-78, oil on canvas, San Diego Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. H. S. Darlington)

Johnson's portrayal of African-Americans is examined in another section of the exhibition. Exceptional for their honesty, sympathy and directness, the images he created were some of the first paintings to show the reality of African-American life in the mid-1800s. Among the works in the show portraying this theme are Negro Life at the South, with which Johnson established his reputation, and A Ride for Liberty--The Fugitive Slaves. (right: Woman Reading, c. 1874, oil on board, San Diego Museum of Art)

Post-war domestic imagery is explored through paintings such as the San Diego Museum of Art' s own two Johnson paintings-- In the Hayloft (a charming interior barn scene featuring the children of some of Johnson's friends) and Woman Reading (a contemplative scene of a woman reading by the seashore). A selection of intensely personal domestic scenes created in the years following Johnson's marriage in 1869 are also on view, including paintings of his wife, Elizabeth Buckley Johnson.

Johnson spent a considerable amount of time on the island of Nantucket, where he created paintings and drawings capturing the visual character of the island and its inhabitants. Many of these works, as well as a small group of portraits completed in Johnson' s later years, are also included in the exhibition. (right: The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket, 1880, oil on canvas, Timken Museum)

Eastman Johnson, Painting America is accompanied by a catalogue that is the first major publication on Eastman Johnson since 1972, and the first ever to illustrate his work in full color.


Eastman Johnson

Eastman Johnson was born in 1824 and raised in southwestern Maine. In 1840 he began his artistic training in a Boston lithography shop. His talents as a draftsman soon led him to become a crayon portraitist, a career he pursued for the following decade in Washington, D.C., and in Boston, where he created portraits of Hawthorne, Emerson and Longfellow. (right: The Old Stage Coach, 1871, oil on canvas, Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, gift of Frederick Layton)

Determined to continue his studies abroad, in 1849, Johnson went to Düsseldorf, Germany, where he found a place in the studio of the American expatriate Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. In 1851 he moved to The Hague, then the artistic center of The Netherlands, where he studied and worked until 1855. He returned to the United States after a brief stay in Paris, where he worked under the academician Thomas Couture. After his return to Washington, D.C., Johnson began to establish himself as a painter of contemporary American subjects. In 1857 he lived and painted among the native Anishinabe (Ojibwe) in Wisconsin.

Eager to establish a national reputation, in 1858 Johnson established a New York City studio, where he completed Negro Life at the South, which received acclaim at the National Academy of Design's exhibition the following year. In the following decade he continued to create groundbreaking paintings with African-American subjects, such as A Ride for Liberty--The Fugitive Slaves. At the same time, he developed a reputation for domestic subjects, which became his main source of income. Johnson also cultivated a circle of patrons that included some of the city's most prominent collectors, and became by the end of the decade one of New York' s most respected and popular artists. He developed a wide subject repertoire, ranging from urban interiors to rural genre paintings, inspired by frequent visits to Maine. (left: Catching the Bee, 1872, oil on canvas, The Newark Museum, Scudder Bequest)

In the years following his marriage in 1869, Johnson extended his subject matter to include personal domestic imagery of his wife and young daughter. In 1870, he began to explore a new type of rural genre and rustic interiors, inspired by subjects on the island of Nantucket, where he spent a part of each year. Aware of the younger generation of realists returning from study in Europe, he constantly made efforts to update his own style.

After 1880, Johnson painted fewer genre subjects, and devoted his energy primarily to formal portrait commissions, for which he was in great demand. By the time of his death in 1906, Johnson was among a very small group of American artists who had begun their careers in the antebellum period and an even smaller group of artists of his generation who had remained in public favor for most of his career -- during which he had forged new American themes and guided American figure painting into an era of realism. Johnson died in 1906. (left: Sugaring Off at the Camp, Fryeburg, Maine, 1864-66, oil on canvas, Curtis Galleries)

rev. 3/14/00

Please also see our article Eastman Johnson: Painting America (5/14/99) on the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art


Read more about the San Diego Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/27/10

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