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Eastman Johnson

Eastman Johnson was one of the foremost American genre painters of his time to receive extensive formal training abroad. Born Johnathan Eastman Johnson in Lovell, Maine in 1824, Johnson grew up in nearby Fryeburg. His family relocated to Augusta at the age of ten due to his father position as Maine’s secretary of state. He left home at the age of 14 to work in a dry-goods store and apprentice at a lithograph shop. In 1842, Johnson opened up a crayon-portrait studio and sold crayon portraits before moving to Washington D.C. where he created black and white likenesses of prominent figures. He returned to Boston in 1846 and remained there for a few years creating portraitures before deciding to attend the Royal Academy in Düsseldorf, Germany to improve his skills. With the financial backing from a prominent Boston family, Johnson travelled to Germany in 1849 and received extensive training in drawing at the Academy, as well as privately studied oil painting with Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868) in his studio. Two years later, he traveled to London to see the University Exposition only to remain at the Hague for three years, quickly becoming known as the “American Rembrandt”. In 1855, Johnson’s mother passed away, so he returned to Boston and travelled around visiting family members in Lake Superior, Cincinnati, D.C. and New York painting and sketching American life and began genre painting. In 1859, he exhibited his painting Negro Life at the South in New York City, which became an immediate success with the topic of slavery being heavily debated at that time. This piece won him much acclaim as well as an election as an Associate of the National Academy of Design. After this, he began following the Union Army around for a time, sketching and painting genre scenes. For the next two decades, he continued to paint genre scenes with an emphasis on everyday subject matter. He bought a house in Manhattan and spent many of his summers in Nantucket, which became the subject of many of his paintings. As the demand for his genre paintings ceased toward the turn of the twentieth century, he found a renewed interest in portraitures and continued painting this way for the next twenty years until his death in 1906. Throughout his life, Johnson’s genre painting and extensive international training married classic ideas with modern techniques, making him a pioneer of contemporary American art.

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