Born in Lowell, Maine, in 1824, Eastman Johnson displayed an artistic talent at an early age. His training began around 1840, when his father secured an apprenticeship in a lithography shop in Boston. In 1849, he began his European studies by moving to Düsseldorf, Germany and enrolling at the Düsseldorf Academy. In 1851, Johnson then moved to the Hague and studied 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters for three years. He ended his European travels in Paris, studying with the academic painter Thomas Couture in 1855.
Returning back to American, Eastman Johnson began to establish himself as a painter of contemporary American subjects. In 1857, he lived and painted among the native Anishinabe (Ojibwe) in Wisconsin. His drawings and painting depict Ojibwe people in an intimate and relaxed manner. Johnson left Wisconsin, due to wide spread financial panic, for Cincinnati, Ohio to make money via portrait commissions and did not return to the subject of the Ojibwe. In 1858, he established a New York studio, where he completed Negro Life at the South, also know as Old Kentucky Home which was acclaimed at the National Academy of Design the following year. This piece is considered by many to be Johnon’s masterpiece. His reputation secured, Johnson was elected as Associate member of the Academy that same year and a full academician a year later.
Eastman Johnson’s style is largely realistic in both subject matter and in execution. His original photorealistic charcoal sketches were not strongly influenced by period artists, but rather reflect his lithography training and attention to anatomical accuracy learned abroad. Later works show additional influence by the 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters. His careful attention to light sources contributes to the realism.
Throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s, Johnson painted a variety of subjects ranging from urban interiors to rural genre paintings inspired by frequent visits to Maine. In the years following, his subjects began to include personal domestic imagery that frequently included his wife and daughter. From 1870, he also began exploring a new type of rural genre and rustic interior, inspired by subjects on the island of Nantucket, where he spent a part of each year. Always aware of the next generation of Realists artists returning from studying in Europe, he was continuously trying to update his own style.
In 1871, Eastman Johnson built a summer home on Nantucket Island. He soon took up plein-air painting, utilizing a more vivid palette and taking a greater interest in light and shadow. During this period, his style was influenced by the French Barbizon School as well as the pre-Civil War American genre tradition.
Johnson exhibited widely throughout his career and was active in the National Academy, the Century and Union League Clubs, and the Society of American Artists. He was Co-Founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. 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 exclusively. Eastman Johnson died in 1906 in New York City.
Representative examples of Eastman Johnson work can be found in major collections throughout the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.