As a painter at a time when the Civil War was imminent, Eastman Johnson captured the sentimental notions of the conflict-filled nation. His themes ranged from runaway slaves and heroic Union soldiers to rustic, rural types and young women and children. Beginning in 1857, Johnson produced several exquisite depictions of slaves in quiet, domestic settings. With The Old Mount Vernon, a superlative early example from this series, Johnson effectively demonstrates his ability to organize a complex, multifigured genre scene with marked attention to detail, composition, color, and dignity of the figures and their surroundings.
1857 was a pivotal year in United States history that undoubtedly inspired Johnson's choice of subject matter. The critical events of that year include the proslavery Democratic politics of the newly elected president, James Buchanan, which helped to incite the consolidation of his Republican opponents, and the Supreme Court decision in the Dredd Scott case, which upheld the legality of the property rights of white men to own black men. Johnson's personal experiences of that year also led him to a career as a principal genre painter of African Americans. Having returned in the fall of 1855 from six years of study and professional practice in Europe, Johnson had moved in with his sisters and recently widowed father in Washington, D.C. Still not settled into an artistic practice by early 1856, Johnson accepted an invitation from his sister, Sarah, to visit her in Superior, Wisconsin. This trip in the summer of 1856 provided Johnson the opportunity to see the West and explore new subject matter.
Johnson returned briefly to D.C. in the summer of 1857, and it was then that the artist visited Mount Vernon, President George Washington's home, for the first time. According to Dr. Patricia Hills, it was on this trip that Johnson painted the present work, The Old Mount Vernon, as well as: two paintings of the grounds before improvements began, a study of the empty interior of the north dependency with its large hearth and three almost identical versions of Kitchen at Mount Vernon, a scene depicting a slave family sitting by the hearth.
Johnson's personal long-standing association with the anti-slavery movement also led to his interest in creating sympathetic portrayals of African American men and women. Dr. Hills writes: "We do not know the specific catalyst for Johnson's turning to the subject of slave life in 1857...but certainly the subject was timely in that turning-point year; the abolitionists' moral invectives and the arguments by antislavery political and social leaders must have had their effect on the artist. As a young draftsman in Boston in 1846, Johnson had been invited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to make crayon portraits of his family and friends...all of whom were sympathetic to the abolitionists' cause...In addition, while Johnson lived in The Hague, he had exhibited in 1853 a picture of Uncle Tom and Little Eva, drawn from characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's inflammatory Uncle Tom's Cabin...moreover, slavery was a contested fact of life in Washington, D.C., even in Johnson's own household. Mary Washington James, a widow whom his father...was courting and would marry on August 31 of that year, owned three slaves." ("Painting Race: Eastman Johnson's Pictures of Slaves, Ex-Slaves, and Freedmen," Eastman Johnson: Painting America, exhibition catalogue, Brooklyn, New York, 1999, p. 122)
In The Old Mount Vernon, Johnson masterfully portrays the scene by paying close attention to detail, composition, color and light. The home is viewed from a slightly lower vantage point, appearing grand and heroic, much like its first owner, George Washington. A slave sits for a moment of rest in the doorway of the building at right while a child stands in the vast yard free to roam, with several figures behind him on the veranda. The scene is intentionally devoid of any white men, allowing the figures to seem free, as if they are engaged in a moment of leisure at their own home. The figures' quiet, contemplative spirit brings an emotional element to the painting. The setting sun at right illuminates the side of the building and rakes across the lawn, further underscoring this sense of peace and tranquility. The theatrical lighting with dark shadows and bright highlights provides a crisp and clear delineation of the magical moment of liberty defined in the narrative.
Johnson built his career on paintings such as The Old Mount Vernon. By 1867 Henry T. Tuckerman, the foremost art critic of the day, praised Johnson's pictures of African Americans in Book of Artists: "In his delineation of the negro, Eastman Johnson has achieved a peculiar fame. One may find in his best pictures of this class a better insight into the normal character of that...race...The affection, the humor, the patience and serenity which redeem from brutality and ferocity the civilized though subjugated African, are made to appear in the creations of this artist with singular authenticity." (as quoted in Eastman Johnson: Painting America, p. 121) Tuckerman also specifically praises the general success of Johnson's truthful, poignant narratives, of which The Old Mount Vernon is a superior example: "In all [of Johnson's] works we find vital expression, sometimes nave, at others earnest, and invariably characteristic; trained in the technicalities of his art, keen in his observation, and natural in his feeling, we have a genre painter in Eastman Johnson who has elevated and widened its naturalistic scope and its national significance. His pictures are in constant demand and purchased before they leave the easel." (as quoted in Eastman Johnson: Painting America, p. 185)
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being compiled by Dr. Patricia Hills.