Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Johnson, Eastman

The Girl I Left Behind Me
oil on canvas
106.7 x 88.7 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA

"The Girl I Left Behind Me" is a long-standing popular folk tune and song, dated by most authorities to the late 18th or early 19th century. It has many variations and verses. Here is one example:

My mind her full image retains
Whether asleep or awaken'd
hope to see my jewel again
For her my heart is breaking.

Eastman Johnson imagined a soldier's wife standing on the hill where they parted. The crimson lining of her wind-whipped cape suggests their passionate love for one another, while her wedding ring, appearing almost at the center of the painting, ensures the young bride's devotion. Johnson had witnessed the Battle of Manassas in 1862, and the painting's title refers to an old Irish song that became a popular regimental ballad during the Civil War. The young woman in this picture may be the most passionate portrayal in all nineteenth-century American art. It is even more openly romantic than Winslow Homer's pictures of women. Everything about her is animated by an inner intensity. She combines the majesty of a classical statue with the mood of a tragic heroine.

Eastman Johnson (1824 - 1906) was an American painter, and Co-Founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, with his name inscribed at its entrance. Best known for his genre paintings, paintings of scenes from everyday life, and his portraits both of everyday people and prominent Americans such as Abraham Lincoln, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His later works often show the influence of the 17th-century Dutch masters whom he studied while living in The Hague, and he was even known as The American Rembrandt in his day.

Johnson's achievement was to bring more sophisticated techniques to the United States, to extend the range of "American" subject matter, and to insist on a more dignified and democratic content to genre painting. He spoke to and for his own generation, and he greatly influenced a number of genre painters as they made their transition from genre painting to art-for-art's sake modernism. He could produce anecdotal and sentimental pictures while simultaneously experimenting with a lighter palette, looser brushwork, and summary treatment of forms. Seen in the broader context of American art, Johnson's work forges the strongest link between the genre painting of the pre-Civil War years and the realism of the late nineteenth century.