Schiller Institute on YouTube Schiller Institute on Facebook RSS

Home >

Eastman Johnson: Painter of Freedom

By Steven Carr
March 2016

Click on any image to view full size

Figure 1
Self-portrait done in 1890 when Johnson was painting less frequently.

Much effort has been made over the years to obscure and diminish the importance of the works by the American painter, Eastman Johnson (1824-1906). However, around the period of the American Civil War, Johnson dedicated himself and much of his art to save the soul of America. His career could be considered another casualty of that war, as historical revisionists changed or re-interpreted his paintings, titles of his paintings were altered or new titles invented, and his works were stripped of site-specific substance, and replaced with nostalgic generalities—especially those dealing with the touchy subject of American slavery. Perhaps most damaging of all was America's cultural amnesia, partly imposed by those most trusted to guard our culture—the art academies, galleries, and museum curators, who in this period, began their trend of abandoning the heavy ideas of classically-trained artists, in their mad scramble to adapt to the international zeitgeist of the banality and sense certainty of mere personal expression in modern art.

Johnson was born in Maine, and thought that New England safeguarded the know-how to rebuild the nation after the chaos of the Civil War. The staggering death toll on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line during the war left years of hardship in the homes, farms, and workshops after the war. Johnson saw New England's traditional community involvement that took care of families while the fishing fleets were at sea or helped farmers bring in their cranberry harvest could be a model to mend America's war-torn social fabric—and he worked to make it accessible to all. However, Johnson also poked-fun at New England's Transcendentalists, and challenged leaders in the abolitionist movement such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher who beat the drums of war to end slavery, but when the war was won, made no effort for racial equality, or economic development, allowing a national tragedy to fester. Johnson even fought with his own father, Philip Johnson who was a rising star in Maine's Democratic Party, and who moved the family to Washington, DC. The father helped to establish Eastman Johnson's art career at a makeshift studio in a committee chamber of the U.S. Senate where he had privileged access to national figures in both political parties, including John Quincy Adams. Despite this help, however, Eastman considered his father much too accommodating to slave interests, and would even boycott his widowed father's second wedding.

Figure 2
The German-American painter, Emanuel Leutze requested that Johnson make this smaller copy of Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" so that it could be easily transported to printers in Paris for mass-producing lithographs. Their objective was to inspire an American style republic in Germany. Seen here is the 1851 copy done in their Düsseldorf studio by Johnson.

In order to study art, and possibly also to get-away from his father, Johnson at age 24 went to the Düsseldorf Academy at a time of great republican ferment in Germany. Düsseldorf was a cosmopolitan hotbed of activity with an estimated 700 international students, including about 100 from America. Much of the hand-picked faculty of the academy may have been firmly under the control of the monarchists, but many in the student body rallied around the German-American republican leader, Emanuel Leutze and the club founded by him, The Malkastern Club (or Paintbox Club). Leutze's club was a center of political debate, and Johnson called it “the smartest club in town.” After a few weeks Johnson left the academy, and would spend two years working and studying directly at the studio of Leutze where he was present during the painting of Leutze's huge canvas, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851). Leutze used this painting to inspire support for an American style republic in Germany, and Johnson's letters to his family were elaborate accounts of each detail of the painting, and a status report of its completion. (This painting would become a familiar icon on both sides of the Atlantic, but few viewers actually saw the giant painting—what they saw were the mass produced lithographs based on Eastman Johnson's smaller copy, painted at Leutze's request—see figure 2).

“The American Rembrandt”

Before returning to America, Johnson wanted to stop in Holland to study the great Dutch and Flemish masters, but what was intended to be only an one month stay became 4 years. He was captivated by the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He copied the works of Gerrit Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Gerard ter Borch, and Jan Steen. Johnson's works of dimly lit interior scenes, some focus on introspection, his powerful yet understated narratives, and his sparse use of common household objects that could add context to a painting without distracting the viewer, were all inspired by these artists. However, Johnson would say, “It is Rembrandt who dominates all.” Day after day, for almost four years, Johnson would return to the museums to spend hours studying and copying every Rembrandt painting that he could find. Most interesting to him were Rembrandt's use of lighting and the expressions of the subjects. Of the Rembrandt works that were available to him, he considered “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp” (1632) to be the most important. Because of his four year dedication to this single artist, colleagues began to call Johnson, “The American Rembrandt.”

Dutch Art as a Political Weapon

Johnson was inspired by the social and political power of Dutch art, and became effective in choosing the most relevant subject matter, drawing the viewer into his near Socratic dialogue in search of a deeper understanding of society. Through history Dutch republican patriots have used art as a proud symbol of independence and national identity. (Here we must warn the reader that while the patriots fought to make Holland a great center of science, art, industry, and learning, Rembrandt himself would leave graphic accounts of how the Dutch money-changers had taken over the temple, and Holland became a leader in the slave trade, predatory usury, hostility to sovereign nation states, and many other vices).

However, Johnson's visit to Holland perfectly coincided with a moment of increased influence for the patriot faction and the importance they gave to art. During Napoleon's 1795 invasion and subsequent occupation of the Low Countries, art became an issue of national security. The Dutch patriots actively cultivated their Northern Renaissance art as a symbol of political resistance, and as a defense against the onslaught of the new French styles which were threatening their national identity. Napoleon looted much of the great art from Holland, and the Dutch people would fight for 20 years after the occupation for the return of their art treasures. When the art was finally returned, the Dutch government established the Mauritshuis Museum to house the collection, and to this day, this museum remains a great symbol of national resistance and a source of pride. (Today this fight is not over since unfortunately in 1995 the money-changer faction privatized their beloved museum).

“The Alphabet is an Abolitionist”

Figure 3
Johnson completed this painting in 1863 but never gave it a title. Johnson celebrates the humanity of the subject which broke all the social codes of the period..

Just days after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, Johnson began to work on his painting to illustrate the liberating power of the written word (see Figure 3). This was a popular topic of the period, and the national magazine, “Harper's Weekly” wrote, “The alphabet is an abolitionist.” However, for Johnson the act of reading was always more than a practical skill, it was a celebration of one's humanity. Johnson painted a very inclusive gallery of women reading, small children reading, a young Abraham Lincoln on the frontier reading by the light of his fireplace, etc.--but here, to celebrate the humanity of an African-American broke every social code. The propaganda mills had been working overtime to attack Lincoln's emancipation efforts, and convince the country that Blacks could never become responsible citizens and needed white authority. It had been illegal to teach African-Americans to read across the South. Traditionally Blacks rarely appeared in any works of art, and when they did, they were relegated to the margins. Even in a painting, an adult black male was required to face away from the viewer, and to do otherwise was considered threatening. But Johnson brings his black subject out of the margins and has him facing the viewer. It is painted in warm tones with the figure deep in concentration. The subject may appear gentle, but he is not passive, and shows us a great self-determination. He literally takes his future into his own hands, and is clearly not asking permission from anyone to end the imposed backwardness. Not only is he able to read, but his choice of reading material, The Bible, suggests a striving for a better understanding of God, and one's own perfectibility. Johnson includes a blue blanket with red trim on the back of the chair to imply that our subject is a veteran of the Union Army, and his worthiness as a citizen has already been battle-tested. Johnson had the ability to take the most common scene in the most domestic settings, and yet turn it into a national referendum. Other artists might show us a heartwarming image of an idle man passing his time in a humble cottage, but Johnson shows us how to move the country forward.

Figure 4
1862 sheet music for the widely circulated "O Let My People Go."

Literacy was the first step to independence and the Bible was a natural starting point. Johnson depicts The Bible opened near the beginning, most likely to Exodus with its message of “Let my people go.” This theme was in the popular lexicon of the period and widely known even among white northerners as the verses of the Negro Spiritual, “Go Down Moses” were published in northern newspapers and circulated in popular sheet music arrangements under the title, “Oh! Let My People Go: The Song of the Contrabands” (see Figure 4).

For over 100 years this painting never had a title, but in 1979 when the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired the canvas, a curious title was given to it. The title chosen was not “Let My People Go,” but rather, “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” and the art world has been debating the appropriateness of this title ever since. This adopted title is derived from the opening lines of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” However, our subject is clearly reading from the beginning of The Bible, and not the 23rd Psalm found in the middle of The Bible. This less demanding, less urgent title was imposed to dilute the message of the painting. Nobody is questioning the faith of the subject, but in the middle of the Civil War, this war veteran was fighting for freedom.

A Ride for Liberty

Figure 5
"A Ride for Liberty--The fugitive Slaves" was painted in 1862. This family crosses a wide battlefield and is running for the Union Army where only the glimmer of their shiny bayonets can be seen on the horizon.

During the Civil War Johnson not only gave attention to slaves, but put their plight at the center of national debate. In May of 1861, only one month after the first shots of the Civil War, slaves began to escape to the freedom of the Union lines. The first documented cases were three slaves who belonged to a Confederate colonel. They escaped to Fort Monroe in Virginia and were able to give detailed military intelligence of enemy movements, positions, strength, and even accurate descriptions of the local terrain to Union General Benjamin Butler. Butler, who worked as a lawyer in private life, came up with a legal strategy to defy the Fugitive Slave Act, and soon hundreds of thousands of slaves escaped to the Union lines, and many enthusiastically worked for the Union Army. (Not all followed General Butler's lead, such as Union General George McClellan—Lincoln's re-election opponent in 1864—who always returned escaped slaves to their near certain death at the hands of their old masters).

In 1862 Johnson painted “A Ride for Liberty-The Fugitive Slaves” based on an actual event that he witnessed in the pre-dawn hours of March 2 at a battlefield near Centreville, Virginia (see Figure 5). Johnson described the event as a tense moment with opposing armies dug-in across a wide field. Both sides expected a great battle to erupt at any moment, yet everything was surprisingly quiet. Johnson could not sleep and was up walking around. Suddenly in the distance, he heard a lone horse galloping at full speed towards the Union line. As the horse neared he could see the silhouette of the four riders in the darkness, and he realized that they were a family of escaping slaves. Some have suggested that Johnson included the exact date and location in order to honor the family's courage, determination, and valor. This family may have been considering escaping for years, but it was the proximity of the Union lines that caused them to make the split-second decision for freedom. Johnson made three versions of the work, but kept them in his private collection, possibly indicating that he was still personally contemplating the issue.

The horse is in mid-stride, with its hooves off the ground and its tail blowing to show the speed. The husband is seen looking forward to their new lives, and the wife, riding side-saddle, looking back out of concern for those whom they leave behind. On the back of the canvas Johnson wrote a virtual testimonial that he personally witnessed the event with exact details of the time and location—which changed how newspaper reporters would file their battlefield reports. After this painting, journalists felt compelled to include a note that they personally witnessed the incident that they described and signed their name. Ironically, it was the photographers of the period who were less faithful to accurate images, and were known to drag bodies around battlefields to create more dramatic photos.

Maple Sugar or Slave Sugar

Figure 6
"Playing Cards Fryeburg, Maine" was painted in 1865 to show how the country could transition away from a slave economy. Johnson shows the complete process of making maple sugar. The sap is brought in barrels on the right, boiled to a thick consistency in the middle, and the bricks of sugar are cooled on the snow on the left.

The production of maple sugar has long been used as an act of defiance, independence, and survival. By 1675 it was the household sweetener of choice, and after a long New England winter it was the first harvest of the season for a people sometimes facing hunger and famine. When the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act in 1764 to tax sugar imports into the American colonies, the Patriots rallied around their domestic maple sugar as a symbol of defiance. They called it “free sugar,” and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would even attempt to bring maple sugar production to the South, determined to make America self-sufficient in sweeteners.

The alternative to maple sugar was cane sugar, and two thirds of all the slaves brought from Africa to the Western Hemisphere did not come to pick cotton, but to produce cane sugar. The big producers of “slave sugar” were Brazil, Barbados, and southern Louisiana. Johnson saw the free labor tradition of his native New England as a badge of honor, and the Yankee ingenuity that it involved as a source of pride. (We should note that producing maple sugar had been practiced by Native Americans for over a millennium.) He made 25 oil sketches, all unfinished and elementary, yet exact in depicting the technology and the process involved (see Figure 6). The sometimes raucous sugaring-off parties attracted the entire community and celebrated the first batch of maple sugar of the season, and the symbolic beginning of Spring. But Johnson's interest in maple sugar was its historic role as a symbol of resistance against oppression, and to show how the country could transition away from its dependence on a slave economy.

“Negro Life at the South”

Figure 7
"Negro Life at the South" was exhibited in early 1859 and launched Johnson's art career. Johnson captured the scene behind his father's house, just 3 blocks east of the White House in Washington, DC. Johnson's image of a divided society mirrored Lincoln's recent "House Divided" speech.

Shortly after Abraham Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech in Springfield, Illinois in June, 1858, Johnson began his painting of a house divided in “Negro Life at the South” (see Figure 7). This is considered the best-known painted image of American slavery, and it launched Johnson's art career when it was exhibited in early 1859 at the National Academy of Design in New York. The scene is the rear yard of a home on his father's block at the northwest corner of 13th and F Street in Washington, DC (less than three blocks east of the White House). Congress had full control over the District of Columbia so the issue of slavery there was never local, but rather the most heated question of national policy. Congress was bombarded with so many petitions opposing slavery in Washington that it violated the constitutionally protected First Amendment “Right to Petition,” with its 1836 “gag rule” that refused to accept any petition on the issue, and nearly expelled Congressman John Quincy Adams in 1837 when he attempted to submit a petition signed by, and on behalf of slaves.

During the Civil War this neighborhood depicted was known as “Secession Hill” since so many Confederate leaders had lived there, such as Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis who became the President of the Confederacy, Louisiana Senator Judah Benjamin who became the Confederate Secretary of War, Georgia's Senator Robert Toombs who became the Confederate Secretary of State, and others. When the anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner moved across the street from the Johnson home, his southern neighbors delivered a bloody “gift” of a severed finger of a slave to show Sumner that he was not welcome in the neighborhood. It was said at the time that only the ports of the slave coast of Africa had more infamous slave markets than Washington, and the many slave prisons (America's first private prisons) were as close as two blocks from the US Capitol. Washington was notorious for a system of kidnapping of freedmen and then selling them as slaves to work on plantations in the deep South. There were also the “mantraps” of jailing free Blacks over a real or imagined minor infraction, and then immediately releasing them—except if they did not have the few dollars to cover the jail fee, they could be sold into slavery to cover the costs.

Critical to the city's system of slavery were the high walls of the “slave pens” behind homes where slaves could be easily called by their masters, yet out of sight from the street. (Masters were terrified that their slaves might interact with passing free Blacks on the street). The yard was used to impose the hierarchical order of society, and maintain isolation and restrict movement—to be caught outside of those walls was routinely punished by whipping or having one or both ears cut-off. The sky in Johnson's painting is almost eliminated to further illustrate the confinement and solitude of the slaves. Johnson tears-down the walls and shows us that despite the dehumanizing conditions, these slaves have resilience and an organized community life. There are three generations visible and there is a desire to pass on traditions to the young. Even the black musician, an image long used in caricatures to degrade and deny any intelligence of the subject, here has a young admirer at his side, and as quite often the case, the music was used as resistance or even to mock the white masters. (Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography that “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.”) Johnson does not stereotype the figures and gives each individual a portrait quality image.

The painting is clearly divided in four ways—the most obvious is left and right, between the collapsing slave quarters (symbolic of a collapsing slave system) on the left and the well-kept big house on the right. The other division is between the narrative of the ground level and the activities of the second floor—especially in the plush accommodations of the master's bedroom. However, Johnson shows us that it is in the master's bedroom where the strict segregation was not always enforced. There are many ways to enter or exit the master's house without using the front door, such as open windows, the open gate in the fence, and even the ladder between the two buildings. There are several other clues to this night time integration such as the white cat slinking into the second floor window of the slave quarters, and the rooster high in the tree calling to the hen on the roof. Perhaps the most conclusive of all is the dark skinned woman holding a light skinned child on the second floor window with no father in sight. Despite the fact that so many slave masters committed sexual assault on their slaves, a political smear campaign was launched against Abraham Lincoln with the wedge issue of race mixing—even adding a new word to the English language, miscegenation, heavy with negative undertones for these attacks on Lincoln.

The paint had barely a chance to dry before the painting was being re-interpreted and promoted as a pro-slavery image. (The argument was literally that since Johnson did not include a whipping post or auction block that it must be considered as supporting slavery). A critic at the New York Times denied that there was any deeper meaning and said that it was merely a “southern idyll.” Indeed the first two owners of the painting were William P. Wright, and Robert Stuart, both of recent British extraction and both wealthy Wall Street merchants who made a fortune from the slave economy; Wright was a prominent cotton broker, and Stuart was the largest sugar refiner in New York. Still the historical revisionism went further, and in 1867 during the exhibition of this painting in Paris at the Exposition Universelle the title of the painting was changed to “Old Kentucky Home,” despite Johnson's authentic details of the Secession Hill neighborhood of Washington. In October, 1938 Life magazine included this painting in its list of America's 11 greatest masterpieces, but changed its name, changed its meaning, and wrote that it was an “idealization of slavery.”

Johnson's greatest works were always scenes of the daily lives of African-Americans which celebrated their humanity. Despite decades of efforts to dilute or distort his message, Johnson was always a champion for a free and thinking population where progress was offered to all. In the 1800's the few stalwarts who defended Johnson were from the Abolitionist movement who understood his message. Today, if we hope to restore America as a world leader again, our collective memory might start with a refresher course on Eastman Johnson.