For many years the foremost genre painter in the United States, Eastman Johnson was among the first American artists of his generation to receive extensive training abroad. His oeuvre thus serves as an important link to two generations, combining traditional, domestic subjects with more advanced technique and expression.
Johnson was born in Lovell, Maine, in 1824, but he grew up in nearby Fryeburg. In 1834 his family moved to Augusta, where his father was involved in state government. There he opened a crayon-portrait studio at age 18, after first working briefly in a Boston lithography shop.
About two years later, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he took black-and-white likenesses of eminent national figures, such as Dolly Madison and John Quincy Adams, in the hope of building a gallery of famous personages. By 1846 he had returned to Boston, where he received a good deal of patronage from the family of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
His artistic apprenticeship began in earnest in 1849, when he traveled to Düsseldorf, Germany, and received rigorous training in drawing at that city's academy. More congenial, however, was the time he spent in the studio of Emanuel Leutze, where he concentrated on painting.
In 1851 he went to London to see the Universal Exposition and then relocated to The Hague, remaining for over three years. His lengthy stay at The Hague was somewhat unusual for an American artist, but he apparently found much inspiration in the Dutch Old Masters as well as ready patronage through August Belmont, the wealthy American ambassador. His European education ended with several months spent in the Parisian studio of Thomas Couture before the death of his mother brought him home in 1855.
For the next few years Johnson cast about for work, traveling to Lake Superior to visit a sister and sketch members of the Chippewa Tribe, painting in Cincinnati, renting a studio in New York, and spending time with his family in Washington, D.C. The turning point came in 1859 with the exhibition in New York of his Negro Life in the South (New-York Historical Society). His ambiguous picture of the leisure activities of a group of slaves was a sensation at a time when the topic of slavery was being universally debated, and it resulted in his election as an Associate to the National Academy of Design.
For two decades thereafter, Johnson explored themes of national life with his humble interior scenes and larger rural tableaux, each picture usually the result of careful study through numerous drawings and oil sketches.
Johnson exhibited widely and was active in the National Academy, the Century and Union League Clubs, the Metropolitan Museum, and even the Society of American Artists, a group normally associated with a younger generation of painters. He was comfortable in upper-class society, owned a large home in Manhattan, and spent his summers on the island of Nantucket, the scene of many of his paintings. During the last twenty years of his life, his work changed distinctly.
Although quite successful in the field of genre painting, he gave it up for unknown reasons and returned to portraiture, the artistic activity of his youth. Able to command extremely large fees, he spent the rest of his life painting the likenesses of prominent gentlemen of New York City, where he died in 1906.