The American painter Jonathan “Eastman” Johnson was born today, in 1824. His birthplace was Lovell, Maine, which is situated by Kezar Lake in Oxford County, Maine. In the 19th century the Kezar River provided water power for the giants of industry. Lovell was the centre for mills that generated spools, long lumber, axe handles, ox goads, carriages, sleighs, harnesses cabinet work, coffins and, even boots and shoes. Farms prospered because of fertile soil and tourists soon discovered the beauty of Kezar Lake.
Eastman’s family was well-known and respected in the community of Fryeburg and Augusta, where they lived during Eastman’s formative years. His father became Secretary of State for Maine (1840) and was appointed by President James Polk to be Chief Clerk in the Bureau of Construction, Equipment, Repair and Navy Department in the late 1840’s.
Life has fascinating twists and turns. Serendipity has interesting outcomes.
When Eastman was 15 years old, he left home for New Hampshire to work in a dry-goods story. He had always had an interest in drawing, which prompted his father to apprentice him to a Boston lithographer in 1840. By 1842, he was back in Augusta making a steady living by making crayon portraits. By 1845, he was in Washington D.C. embraced by the rich and famous: John Quincy Adams, Dolly Madison, Daniel Webster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Eastman was only 22 years old, with a future before him, a legacy to fulfill.
Eastman would travel to Europe, study at the Royal Academy in Düsseldorf, Germany, before making his way to France and Italy. In Holland he became immersed in 17th-century painting particularly Rembrandt and was aptly named the “American Rembrandt.” He was he offered the post of court painter, which he graciously declined. He returned to the United States in 1855 and would capture the times in which he lived. One of his most famous paintings was “Wounded Drummer Boy.”
Arguably, Eastman Johnson’greatest gift to future generations was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. He was one of the visionaries who co-founded “The Met.” His name is inscribed at the entrance, a reminder to all who pass through the doors, that art galleries safeguard the heart of a city, the soul of a society.