The name of Eastman Johnson is inscribed above the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for a reason: He co-founded the world-famous institution.
Eastman Johnson was a Maine-born artist whose politically connected father brought him into contact with well-known portrait subjects.
He earned a reputation for painting scenes of everyday life and portraits of famous figures such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
He was born July 29, 1824 in Lovell, Maine, and grew up in Fryeburg and Augusta.
He was the eighth and last child of Mary Kimball Chandler Johnson and Phillip Carrigan Johnson. His father served as Maine’s secretary of state for two years before moving to Washington, D.C. as an appointee to the U.S. Naval Department.
Eastman had worked as an apprentice to a Boston lithographer in 1840. He joined his family in Washington, D.C., at about 20. There he earned a living drawing crayon portraits , including John Quincy Adams and Dolly Madison
He studied in Europe before returning to New York City. He then made his name with his masterpiece, a painting called Negro Life at the South, a street scene of slaves in Washington, D.C.
Eastman Johnson sympathetically depicted the plight of slaves. While on an extended visit to Wisconsin, he painted members of the Ojibwe tribe. He also painted genre scenes – everyday scenes of ordinary people – of husking bees, sugaring off, an old stagecoach and cranberry harvesting. In his time people called him The American Rembrandt.
Johnson, always on the lookout for rural subjects, found inspiration on Nantucket and surroundings in 1870. As a native New Englander he wanted to paint outdoor New England, and the cranberry harvesters did it for him. Art critics consider it a significant painting because of Johnson’s evocative technique. He emphasizes the light and the landscape, as well as the sense of a community at home on the land.
From his vacation home on Nantucket, Johnson wrote in 1879, “I was taken with my cranberry fit as soon as I arrived and have done nothing else.”
Eastman Johnson died April 5, 1906.
This story was updated in 2021.