An Overdue Exhibition of an Overlooked Painter


On view at the Colby Museum, Eastman Johnson and Maine is the first solo show in the painter’s home state

Judy Baker, of Hampden, Maine, browses the Eastman Johnson exhibition at the Colby Museum of Art. A Maine native, Johnson often turned to his home state for subject matter, creating works that portrayed various aspects of rural experience. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)
By Indiana Thompson ’18Photography by Ashley L. Conti
June 20, 2024

The Colby College Museum of Art this month opened an exhibition of Eastman Johnson, a mid- to late-19th-century painter from Maine, offering a unique and contemplative look at 13 of the genre painter’s historically consequential scenes of the experience that was and is rural Maine life.

Remarkably, given his stature as one of the most accomplished painters of his time, Eastman Johnson and Maine is Johnson’s first solo exhibition in his native state. On view in the Davis Gallery, the exhibition also celebrates the bicentennial of his birth.

Of the exhibition, Sarah Humphreville, Lunder Curator of American Art at the Colby Museum, highlights that “Eastman Johnson and Maine demonstrates the importance of this state to American art history. It showcases Johnson as one of the country’s foremost genre painters while also maintaining focus on the local environment, which will feel resonant for contemporary viewers.” 

19th-century oil painting of people inside a barn. An old man and a child sit shucking corn while a young man lifts a basket of corn on his shoulder.
Barn Interior at Corn Husking Time, 1860. (Oil on canvas 26 x 30 inches). Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.Y.; gift of Hon. Andrew D. White, 19.116.

Born in Lovell, Maine, and raised in neighboring Fryeburg and Augusta, Johnson (1824–1906) is widely considered to be the foremost American genre painter. He was also a prolific portraitist whose career and body of work were far from linear.

After opening a crayon-portrait shop in Augusta when he was 18, in his early 20s, Johnson moved to Washington, D.C., where he began his artistic career in earnest by making black-and-white portraits of John Quincy Adams, Dolley Madison, and other famous figures of the time. It was only when Johnson began to experiment with pastels that he decided to learn oil painting. For this, he embarked on a formative period of apprenticeship in Europe.

Johnson was one of the first American artists to receive extensive training abroad, and his years in Dusseldorf, Paris, and The Hague shaped the painting style that defined his legacy of American art. Indeed, the body of work that marks the height of his career, reflected in the oil paintings on display in Eastman Johnson and Maine, combines traditional, domestic American subjects with advanced technique and expression while playing with light and shadow—ultimately elevating everyday subjects to fine art.

Eastman Johnson and Maine was curated with the advice of Patricia Hills, the leading scholar on Johnson, and features works on loan from major American museums, as well as one from Colby’s collection. The result is a focused scope that traces the themes of life in the woods, logging, barns, domestic and multigenerational scenes, and the early contemplation of the human impact on the environment.

Many of the works in this exhibition are also inherently political, and references to the Civil War and Johnson’s personal politics abound. When Johnson returned to the United States from Europe in the mid-1850s, the country was on the cusp of a monumental fracture. Johnson is widely understood to have been a committed Unionist. However, for the most part, instead of focusing his paintings on heroism and nationalism, Johnson’s body of Civil War-related works more often depicts the war’s impact on life off the battlefield—particularly for families and children at home.

Humphreville, curator of this exhibition, said that Colby’s collection often serves as a source of inspiration and a springboard for the museum’s exhibitions. This is indeed the case for Eastman Johnson and Maine, and the piece that belongs to Colby, The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp, is both a visual highlight of the show and part of its impetus.

19th-century oil painting of people sitting on logs at a maple syrup camp, where a vat of boiling maple syrup gives off steam.
The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp, c. 1861–65. (Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches). Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection, 2013.159.

Visitors to the exhibition will see that the painting joins three others also devoted to the celebration of maple sugaring. The scenes of this annual rite, both nostalgic and joyful, reflect Johnson’s childhood in Maine and the time he spent in his home state as an adult.

Humphreville points out that maple sugar, an iconic symbol of Maine life and a recurring theme in Johnson’s paintings of Maine, was also recognizable in the 1860s as the “abolitionist sweetener.” She notes that “maple sugar, produced in the Northeast, would have represented the antithesis of the sugar cane harvested by slaves in the South.” A subtle political signal for 21st-century viewers, Johnson’s contemporary audience would have identified in his depictions of maple sugaring an implicit indication of Union support.

In the same vein, upon closer examination of Barn Interior at Corn Husking Time, viewers may notice the words “Hamlon” and “Lincoln” scratched into the barn door—an overt acknowledgment of the presidential election of 1860. Hannibal Hamlin was Lincoln’s running mate and became the 15th vice president of the United States. He also happened to be from Maine.

Less obviously political but emotive and compelling, A Boy in the Maine Woods will almost certainly stand out to visitors. On loan from the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Johnson’s painting of a young man contemplating the beginnings of spring is both an image and a visceral feeling likely well understood by anyone who has lived through a Maine winter. The depiction of spring foliage in contrast with the remaining patches of snow cannot help but convey the hope one feels at the sign of warmer months on the horizon.

19th-century oil painting of a young boy standing in a clearing with logs and banks of snow around him.
A Boy in the Maine Woods, c. 1868. (Oil on board, 12 x 20 1/8 inches). Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; bequest of Mrs. Elizabeth B. Noyce, 97.3.23.

Often referred to as the “American Rembrandt” in a nod to the Dutch-style influence on his painting, as a person and as an artist, Johnson lived a remarkable life. He saw his work exhibited widely and was a cofounder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Today, you can find his name inscribed on the museum’s entrance.

In his later years, Johnson gave up genre painting and returned to painting portraits, primarily in New York, where he lived and worked until his death in 1906. But it is for his depictions of everyday domestic and agrarian life that Johnson is considered a key figure in American art.

Art gallery with oil paintings on the wall and a wooden bench in the middle of the room.
Eastman Johnson and Maine is on view in the Davis Gallery at the Colby Museum through Dec. 8, 2024. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

The Colby Museum’s Eastman Johnson and Maine is a triumph because it offers a distinct exploration of a pivotal period in the history of Maine—and of this country—while bringing to the forefront a foundational Maine artist within the context of his work capturing the essence of the state.

Visually captivating and curated with strong narrative nuance, the exhibition showcases Johnson’s technical skill as an oil painter and embodies the spirit of place profoundly evident in these works.

Eastman Johnson and Maine will be on display through Dec. 8. For the first few months of the exhibition, the museum is hosting a complementary show in the North Gallery, Eastman Johnson in Context: The Colby Collection, which includes one of Johnson’s later portraits and works by his friends and contemporaries.