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In 1940 John I. H. Baur organized an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum devoted to the work of Eastman Johnson (1824-1906). For the next three decades, the publication accompanying that show was the standard source on the painter’s life and achievement—for the few who chose to disturb Johnson’s posthumous obscurity. In 1972, in tandem with her dissertation research, Patricia Hills assembled a retrospective of the artist’s work for the Whitney Museum of American Art; her text became the foremost reference related to the painter and American nineteenth-century genre painting. The publications of both Baur and Hills revealed much about both their subject and the contemporary states of the history of American art. Baur’s 1940 text was a project of wholesale recovery: a brief career review interspersed with a few quoted letters, an exhibition checklist, a selection of illustrations, and a heroic attempt to list Johnson’s known paintings and drawings (472 were inventoried). Hills’s catalogue consisted of an extended essay that not only wove together biography and art but also investigated Johnson’s European and American sources, his stylistic growth, and, especially, the development of his themes and their meaning as regards nineteenth-century American life.
Now, thirty years later, Hills and the Brooklyn Museum—rechristened the Brooklyn Museum of Art and its efforts in this project led by Teresa A. Carbone—have banded together to shine once more a strong light onto the life and career of Eastman Johnson. Their exhibition gathers together roughly 100 objects, including most of Johnson’s major genre scenes, a smaller number of his group portraits, and a series of preparatory works that provide procedural as well as aesthetic interest (there are some particularly striking and unfamiliar works among these latter, such as Girl in Barn [no. 49] and Old Man, Seated [no. 64]). Taken together, they present a generous, nearly complete overview of the painter’s early career. I say early because, as was also largely true of the shows of 1940 and 1972, this grouping overlooks the artist’s portrait production (barring portrayals of himself and his immediate family) after 1880. Since Johnson maintained a high profile as portraitist to America’s social and economic elite for the last 25 years of his life, the consistent elision of this aspect is striking. How bad or boring must these paintings be? What questions can an art historian bring to nineteenth-century institutional portraits so as to animate them for the rest of us? (Revealingly, the index has inches of entries on “Women” and “Children,” but not a single line on “Men.”)
The installation in Brooklyn, barring a perplexing group of works in the exhibition’s antechamber, followed a roughly chronological order. Within this framework, and given the limits imposed by the building’s unsympathetic ground-floor galleries, the clusters of paintings and drawings were thematically sensible and visually pleasing. Useful text panels introduced major divisions of the show, and brief explanatory texts accompanied many of the individual works. What the works themselves suggested, seen en masse, was Johnson’s consistency over the decades. Although Lewis Mumford did not write about Johnson in his seminal Brown Decades of 1931, he certainly could have. In work after work Johnson relied on vast quantities of medium-to-dark brown (blank paper or scumbled paint) for the creation of his world; his close-toned masses of umber and sienna, sometimes washed over with near-transparent layers of local color, carve out big shapes and spaces with the barest concern for texture or detail. He then used a few sure strokes of color to define key contours or pull select details into focus. A rich, calm darkness—his inheritance from Thomas Couture no less than from his study of seventeenth-century Dutch masters—pervades. So much so, in fact, that in those few instances where the tonal values of large portions of the canvas are bright and unmodulated, as in Union Soldiers Accepting a Drink (no. 75) and The Conversation (no. 56), we seem to be looking at a wholly different sensibility at work.
As with the catalogues of 1940 and 1972, this of 1999 both promises to serve as the major scholarly resource on the painter for the next generation and exemplifies the academic and museum environments in which it was created. It is a luxurious, big book, filled with handsome color plates (representing, with a few exceptions, the works in the exhibition) and a bevy of supporting illustrations. Its text, typically for its era, is a collaborative effort. It has neither catalogue entries nor a formal checklist. Its contribution to the amassing of documentary materials, complementary to Baur’s earlier list of works, is a selection of the artist’s letters (1851-1890), in which the genial spirit of the man and his age shines forth, and a lifetime exhibition history; this latter, compiled by Julie M. Douglass, provides the most extended view of the painter’s public career to date.
The heart of the book, however, is its six essays, which are contributed by the two curators, an academic art historian, and two scholars from outside the field of art history. Carbone begins with two offerings: “From Crayon to Brush: The Education of Eastman Johnson, 1840-1858” and “The Genius of the Hour: Eastman Johnson in New York, 1860-1880.” These are solid essays entwining his art and much new biographical material. Carbone’s responses to specific paintings can be extremely spirited, as in her appreciation of The Pension Claim Agent (no. 35), so it is a pity that she did not more often deal with individual works at length, nor tackle the problem, hinted at elsewhere in the text, of Johnson’s close variants and copies of his successful works. But she admirably fulfills her self-assigned task of providing a broad framework. She is especially adept at weaving cultural allusions into her discussion—Longfellow, Bryant, and Emerson convincingly move in and out of the mix, although the “Whitmanesque ring” she ascribes to Johnson’s correspondence (57) might more convincingly be associated with the hyperbolic humor of Josh Billings or Mark Twain. She also provides a finely balanced picture of the New York art world—patrons and critics as well as artists—in which Johnson moved with such success from 1860 onward. Taken together, these two essays provide the fullest account of Johnson’s career to 1880 that I know of or—barring the discovery of a cache of documents—foresee.
The third essay, Hills’s “Painting Race: Eastman Johnson’s Pictures of Slaves, Ex-Slaves, and Freedmen,” chronicles a group of works portraying African Americans, which were clustered together by contiguity and wall color in the Brooklyn installation. Hills proposes a full reading of the racial complexities and social ramifications of each painting. Particularly revelatory is her linking of Johnson’s character studies (nos. 79 and 80) to portrayals of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. A tone of moral urgency underlies much of the essay, provoked by Johnson’s use of sympathetic images of African Americans to win fame and fortune after 1859, paired with his decision to drop the subject, at least publicly, after 1866. Contextualizing this apparent retreat from moral to tonal values, paralleled by the pragmatics of Reconstruction politics, prompts Hills to provide a rich, activist-inflected reading of the era’s iconography of African Americans.
A minor character in Hills’s tale is Winslow Homer, whose Bright Side (1865, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) could certainly have been mentioned in her list of the works shown in the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle and whose depictions of African Americans in the 1870s merit treatment beyond a dismissive footnote. But the text as a whole more than balances the slight with the book’s fifth essay, Sarah Burns’s “In Whose Shadow? Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer in the Postwar Decades.” This cunning offering highlights the parallel subjects shared by Johnson and the better-known Homer up to about 1880, giving weight to the mid-nineteenth century’s valuation of the two men, which is considerably at odds with our own.
The fourth and sixth essays expand the realm of inquiry into literary and cultural history. Jane Weiss’s “Home-Loving Sentiments: Domestic Contexts for Eastman Johnson’s Paintings,” focuses on the mid-century phenomenon of domestic literature, a genre roughly equivalent to a cross between Martha Stewart and a Harlequin romance, here interpreted with a feminist edge. Usefully distinguishing between contemporary and historic notions of sentimentality, Weiss plumbs the detail-filled writings of Susan Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, and others, finding examples of scenes similar to Johnson’s depictions of hearth, kitchen, and parlor. The links Weiss establishes between literature and painting are suggestive, but a closer reading of the paintings would sometimes be in order. Is it, as just one example, really the gaslight chandelier that illuminates the older man’s newspaper (176) in The Hatch Family (no. 83), or the daylight he so carefully positions himself to catch? Anne C. Rose’s “Eastman Johnson and the Culture of American Individualism” tracks the tension between society and the individual in the face of the rapid cultural change that animated Johnson’s era. Rose touches on big topics—government, race, religion—and draws conclusions from the artist’s works about Johnson’s own sentiments on these issues. Sometimes this puts a heavy load on individual works, as when she glosses the lack of individual physiognomies in Camp Scene at Grand Portage (no. 102) with reference to Darwin, Lyell, Marx, Engels, and Emerson without notice of the work’s small scale or preparatory purpose. Her observation that “the boys pretending to be horses [in The Old Stage Coach, no. 86; one of the children is a girl, said by Burns—but not Hills—to be African American] suggest that people, ignorantly will-less as animals, may be technology’s slaves” (226) is powerful, but its relevance to the artist remains ineffable. For both these authors Johnson’s works become illustrative of larger social themes rather than points of inquiry, but their impressions of cultural relevance will doubtless make many readers reconsider accepted notions and bring new questions to bear on the interpretation of Johnson’s heretofore largely quiet and reserved pictures.
In sum, Carbone, Hills, and their collaborators have added a worthy successor to the studies of 1940 and 1972, illuminating Johnson as well as the interests of his and our own times.
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