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The painter Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) began his career doing portrait drawings. In 1846, thanks to connections provided by his father–a politician who worked for the navy in Washington, D.C.–Johnson was able to set up a makeshift studio in the Capitol and counted among his sitters John Quincy Adams and Dolly Madison. At the request of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Johnson traveled to Boston to execute not only a portrait of the poet, but of his friends Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But the event that would determine Johnson’s development as a painter didn’t occur until 1851, when an almost incidental trip to Holland led him to discover “the splendid works of Rembrandt & a few other Dutch masters.” Upon returning to the United States, he began depicting (as one critic had it) “homely scenes” of distinctly American subjects–pictures that would garner notice and success. These genre paintings–whether it be Negro Life at the South (1859) or Cranberry Pickers (c. 1879)–are notable for their lack of pretension and not uncongenial sentimentality.
The impact of Dutch art is gratefully acknowledged in Johnson’s paintings. (The painter seen in a self-portrait from 1863, wherein Johnson appears with ruddy cheeks and bushy facial hair, would not be out of place in a Jan Steen painting.) The slightly ramshackle domesticity of Johnson’s canvases, as well as their cozy and enfolding glow, are plainly rooted in the art of the, as Hawthorne put it, “Old Dutch Wizards.”
Eastman Johnson, Self-Portrait in the Costume Worn by Him at the Twelfth Night Celebration at the Century Club (1899), oil on canvas mounted on board, 56-1/2″ x 43″;
Yet Johnson was less a wizard than a journeyman. His pictures are dutiful in their details and uninspired over all. Johnson’s figures rarely achieve a rounded humanity–his crusty geezers and cherubic children aren’t even compelling as emblems–and Johnson makes a muddle of Rembrandt’s burnished tonalities. When he eventually brought a high daylight into his imagery, the paintings became as thin and crinkly as a sheet of aluminum foil. At his best, Johnson was comfortable with his capabilities–that is to say, good enough.
There are lovely moments in Painting America, among them the still-life at the top left portion of The Little Convalescent (c. 1872-1880); the wittily bisected composition of The New Bonnet (1876); and Portrait of Mrs. Hayes (Mary Newton) (c. 1856), a drawing so clear and full that you begin to realize that Johnson never felt as much as ease with oils as he did charcoal.
Johnson is a figure very much of his own time, evoking (as one observer had it) “perhaps the recollection of one or two pictures” for good reason. His sweet and sleepy oeuvre isn’t of a caliber to establish him as an important American artist. To pretend otherwise is to submit an egalitarian aesthetics, wherein artistic quality is shunted aside for a misguided and condescending populism.
© 2000 Mario Naves
A version of the article originally appeared in the January 10, 2000 edition of The New York Observer.