The Lesson by Eastman Johnson
The Lesson by Eastman Johnson The Lesson by Eastman Johnson The Lesson by Eastman Johnson The Lesson by Eastman Johnson
The Lesson by Eastman Johnson

The Lesson by Eastman Johnson

  • Eastman Johnson was among the premier American genre painters of his generation
  • He is renowned for his ability to capture quintessential aspects of American life
  • The present work shows two young children engaged in a lesson of letters
  • It embodies Johnson's penchant for intimate familial scenes, particularly following the war
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Eastman Johnson
1824-1906 | American

The Lesson

Signed and dated "E. Johnson 1874" (lower right)
Oil on board

Among the best-known American artists of the mid- and late 19th century, Eastman Johnson is renowned for the figural subjects he painted throughout his career. Masterfully composed, his genre scenes rival those of Winslow Homer for capturing quintessential aspects of American society. The present work, entitled The Lesson, is no exception. It presents a charming view of middle-class American domesticity, embodying Johnson's penchant for intimate familial scenes in elegant settings.

After the Civil War, the home gained a new role in the American social order, representing a sanctuary from the devastation of the war and the continued divisiveness of the nation during Reconstruction. Homes were celebrated, in particular, as safe havens for the nurturing of children, who offered fresh hope for the future. It is therefore of note that, although Johnson had painted views of Americans at home beginning in the 1850s, the subject formed an especially significant place in his art beginning in the 1870s. In addition to the impact of national issues, his focus on children had a personal dimension at the time, due to the birth of his daughter Ethel.

His works from this period often featured children engaging in quiet activities reflective of their capability to learn through their own initiative. The Lesson, dated 1874, is exemplary in this regard. The charming scene captures two children, a girl of about four years of age who is teaching her younger sibling, a toddler, to read. An alphabet book is spread across their laps, and the older sister points to the letter “O” on a page with the letters “N, O, P.” The younger child intently watches the older girl’s face while she presumably makes the sound of the letter. Such works were not only resounding artistic successes for the painter, but also made him highly sought after by middle and upper class patrons.

Born in Maine in 1824, Eastman Johnson began his artistic training in 1840 when he became an apprentice in Bufford's Lithography Shop in Boston. Finding the work unchallenging, he eventually return to Maine and later Washington D.C., where he developed a reputation as a portraitist. He travelled to Germany in 1848, enrolling in Düsseldorf Academy and immersing himself in the study of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting. These works would have a distinctive impact on his style throughout his career.

This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Eastman Johnson's work currently being prepared by Patricia Hills.

Dated 1874

Canvas: 21 1/2" high x 19" wide
Frame: 36 1/8" high x 33 3/8" wide

Provenance:
Timothy and Joanna Neville, New York, 1874
by descent to Francis D. Neville, Lindenhurst, Long Island
Private collection, 1968
Private collection, Los Angeles
Private collection, New York
M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans, 2019
specifications
Period: 1816-1918
Origin:America
Subject:Children
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