An Artist I Admire: Eastman Johnson (29 July 1824-April 1906)
Why I Haven’t Been Blogging
As mentioned in a previous blog post, I am going to be writing a new series of blog posts about artists which I admire. It has been a while since I blogged, with the Christmas holidays, get together events with family, and various other things. This month, I have struggled to get back into some sort of routine, with art making and blogging. Now, I am starting to plot out the New Year and the things I would like to accomplish. One of my goals this year is to know more about art history and to apply my newfound knowledge to my current artwork, which is content based. In other words, I am seeking to tell a story in my artwork and to express feelings and emotions through color, composition, and symbols. My first project will be for a poetry series which I have been working on for several years off and on.
The second project I am working on will be for the annual box show entry at the Artists’ Gallery in Frederick, MD, which will be on display this March 2019 as part of the annual box show at TAG, and the show‘s name is called, Burning Desires. For more information, visit The Artists’ Gallery website at www.theartistsgalleryfrederick.com. My topic for this box show will be about the question, “What is an American?” It will investigate the dual identities of Americans as immigrants, African-Americans, etc. I am hoping to send a positive message with this work, especially in the midst of so much division about immigration and everything which it entails. Anyway, I digress. With that being said, I would like to turn my attention to the topic of Eastman Johnson, because he specialized in painting about themes such as the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, daily life in America, etc, within the context of the 19th century. Hopefully, I can glean some ideas and inspiration from analyzing and looking at his artwork, and blast through the artist’s block I have been experiencing lately.
This Month’s Blog Topic: Eastman Johnson
When I first started researching this artist, I was intrigued by the facts that I was able to uncover about him. For instance, I found an article entitled, Eastman Johnson: The Failure of a Successful Artist, written by Kenneth Ames. It seemed like an oxymoron to have a failure and successful included in the same sentence about an artist, and it made me wonder how one person could be both successful and a failure at the same time. As the article was an academic work, and I couldn’t get access to it because it required a subscription to the periodical, I decided to just focus on the content of Eastman’s work. I conjectured that I might see if I could find any answers there as to why it seems that his name is not as recognized as other artists in the world of art history, such as his contemporary, John Singer Sargent. Like Eastman, Sargent also painted portraits and figures of well-known personalities, such as Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert Louis Stevenson. However, before we get into that topic, I would first like to give some of Eastman Johnson’s back story, for the benefit of those who have never heard of him or his artwork.
Biography: Eastman Johnson (29 July 1824-April 1906)
According to the National Gallery of Art, website article, entitled, Eastman Johnson, American, 1824-1906, Eastman Johnson was celebrated as the “the foremost genre painter in the United States.” (Source: The National Gallery of Art. “Eastman Johnson-American, 1824-1906”, https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1423.html.
Early Origins and Home Life
Johnson began his life in Lovell, Maine, in 1824. However, he spent his childhood in the neighboring town of Fryeburg. (Source: ibid) A few years later in 1834, his father and family members relocated to Augusta, where his father held a position as a civil servant. (Source: ibid) In Augusta, he founded a “crayon portrait studio” at the age of 18, following a brief stint at a “Boston lithography shop.” (Source: ibid) Thereafter, he decamped to Washington D.C., where he created black and white portraits of celebrated personalities, such as Dolly Madison and John Quincy Adams. His ambition was to amass a portfolio of famous people. (Source: ibid) In 1846, he had the good fortune to obtain a substantial amount of patronage from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow family of Boston. (Source: ibid)
Art Education Abroad
Johnson continued his advanced studies in art in Dusseldorf, Germany, and there he received an intensive education in drawing at the academy in that town. (Source: ibid) However, his time spent studying painting with the teacher Emanuel Leutz was far more enjoyable. (Source: ibid) A few years later, he ventured to London to visit the Universal Exposition. (Source: ibid) Afterwards, he moved to The Hague, staying there for more than three years. (Source: ibid) It would appear that his extended stay at The Hague was out of the ordinary “for an American artist.” (Source: ibid) However, his reasons for the extended stay may be explained by the fact that he was greatly inspired by the art produced by the “Dutch old masters, and that, he also had received patronage from the well to do, the American ambassador, August Belmont. (Source: ibid)
Thesis: Eastman Johnson’s Work was more than Pretty Pictures
According to the author, Kenneth Ames, Eastman Johnson reached the height of American success when he obtained an art studio in New York, and his career continued throughout the “second half of the nineteenth century.” (Source: Taylor, Ramsey. “Eastman Johnson: The Failure of a Successful Artist”, Art Journal, Vol. 29, 1969, volume 2, pgs. 174-182, 6 March 2015, retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00043249.1970.10794692)
Furthermore, prior to his death in 1906, he had completed numerous portraits of elite figures such as presidents and socialites, like his contemporary, John Singer Sargent. (Source: ibid) However, despite these achievements, his work remains obscure. (Source: ibid) I wondered why this is the case. (Source: ibid) Kenneth Ames argues that this is largely due to the fact that Johnson’s work which was most well-known was his “sentimental Victorian genre pictures.” (Source: ibid) However, I would pose the question, could it be possible that there is more to these paintings than meets the eye? On the contrary, could it be that his works also explored the controversial topics of race, slavery, inequality, and identity, which can still resonate with viewers today?
Indeed, I am sorry to say, the issue of inequality still affects us today, despite the passage of time and such notable movements as the Civil Rights movement, which made great strides towards inequality amongst blacks and whites. However, there is still so much more work to do. As the author, A.J. Jacobs states, we are still guided by an us- versus- them mentality and are quick to judge that which is unfamiliar or which we don’t understand, despite our apparent progress in scientific and technological innovations. (Source: Jacobs, A.J. Its all Relative. Simon and Shuster, 2017, Introduction, pg. xii, Introduction). Furthermore, he states, “We’re obsessed with us- versus- them thinking. Blue state versus red state, Americans versus foreigners. Believers versus atheists. Black versus white.” (Source: ibid)
Racism and all the problems it entails still exists today, and you only have to watch the news, read the newspaper or the latest internet headlines to see it is alive and well today. To be continued in next month’s blog post. Stay tuned for next month’s part 2 of Eastman Johnson, an artist I admire, to learn about how Eastman Johnson’s work explored controversial issues of race and equality.