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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Eastman Johnson

The Boyhood of Lincoln, 1868, Eastman
Johnson, perhaps his most iconic painting
Just over a hundred years ago the Victorian era was drawing to a close. What a difference a hundred years or so makes. One of the wonderful things about art is that it allows us a picture into the past. In fact, if we immerse ourselves deeply enough in it, we find it's almost like a time machine. In this era of virtual reality, studying intimately the paintings of the past allows us to "virtually" go back in time. We find, of course, the further we try and go back, the more distorted the visit becomes. Artist in the distant past, for various reasons, found their output vastly more limited than what we assume today. For that reason, they tended to invest their time in only those subjects which they deemed "important" enough to absorb their talents. Thus we tend to see only that which puts the best face on their particular era. As we progress forward into the more recent past, the visual images presented by artists have tended to be more honest, depicting both the best and brightest and the worst and grimiest elements of each particular period. For example, today, we have both the neat and clean, California Dreamin' paintings by David Hockney on the one hand, and Cindy Sherman's photos from the city dump on the other.

Old Kentucky Home, 1858, Eastman Johnson
Strangely enough, during the Victorian era in the U.S., these two extremes came from the brush of a single artist--Jonathan Eastman Johnson. His 1858 painting, Old Kentucky Home (originally called Negro Life in the South) is a backyard view of African-American slaves, working and playing, singing, even dancing and romancing out behind the plantation house. First exhibited in New York, just before the war, the painting seems little short of a miracle in such politically tense times. It was cited by abolitionist for its dignifying and uplifting images of the black race while being admired by Southerners for it's quaint charm and gentle depiction of slavery as they saw it. His Feather Duster Boy from several years after the war is similar. A bit looser in style, it nonetheless depicts an entrepreneurial street urchin with the same honest dignity as might be expected in the portrait of a bank president.

Feather Duster Boy, 1880
Eastman Johnson
Johnson was born in 1824 in Augusta, Maine. He began his artistic career in Boston as a lithographer's apprentice, designing covers for books and sheet music. At the age of 25, he went to Germany, studying in Dusseldorf and later joining the studio of Emanuel Leutze, famous for his painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. By the mid-1850s he was back in this country where paintings such as Old Kentucky Home brought him both popular and critical success. On the other side of the plantation house, from the Victorian era, his 1876 painting, Hollyhocks, depicts several delicately attired young ladies "gardening" amidst the hollyhocks, their carefully arrayed presence a visual analogy demonstrating their feminine loveliness, and virginal purity, bespeaking both fertility and beauty, while protected by the ever-present garden walls from the "real" world just beyond. The painting evokes an era when those of "gentler sex" were not only placed upon a pedestal to be worshiped and adored like delicate flowers (hollyhocks) but protected (imprisoned) by their male admirers for their "private viewing pleasure." Now, back to the future. What a difference a hundred years or so makes.
Hollyhocks, 1876, Eastman Johnson

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