This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being compiled by Dr. Patricia Hills.
In 1857, Eastman Johnson visited Mount Vernon, the former estate of George Washington in Fairfax County, Virginia, with his friend and fellow artist Louis Rémy Mignot. Johnson was personally connected to the Washington family as his father would soon marry Mary James née Washington, one of the nearest surviving relatives of the President, and the two artists spent several weeks on the property as the guests of Washington's great-grand nephew, Colonel John Augustine Washington III. While Johnson never realized the large oil painting of Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette that he planned to paint based on his stay, the trip inspired a fascination with the historical property and smaller-scale works focusing on the interiors and exteriors of the buildings and Washington’s tomb. The present work, Kitchen at Mount Vernon, is the National Academy exhibition picture from a series of five known works specifically focusing on the Servants’ Hall. Other versions of the scene are in the collections of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and the Cummer Museum, Jacksonville, Florida.
At the time of Johnson’s visit, twenty-six slaves remained on the plantation. In Kitchen at Mount Vernon, the artist depicts an African-American woman tucked away with her three children in the dark, dilapidated servant quarters of the once-great estate. Johnson’s masterful articulation of the kitchen’s disrepair was an accurate reflection of the building’s state at the time, a year prior to its purchase and restoration by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. However, the behind-the-scenes viewpoint also served as a powerful, symbolic vehicle through which the artist could represent the greater social and political conditions in the United States during the years leading up to the Civil War. According to Dr. Patricia Hills, Kitchen at Mount Vernon is “a remarkable painting coming out of Johnson’s European training and focusing on an American subject. From Rembrandt and the 17th-century Dutch painters, Johnson learned to paint the effects of light animating shadowed interiors, but, and in advance of his time, in 1857, he pioneered the impressionistic rendering that shows the bits of moments in people’s lives, devoid of the pastel sentimentality of 1850s Salon painting. The face of the mother, who sits with her baby near the fire, melts into the background but her frock glows with spontaneous strokes. The left child, of the two sitting by her, turns to confront the viewer with a sweet face, deftly painted. That Johnson treated this family, struggling with slavery and its legacy, with the utmost respect is not surprising given his own family’s abolitionist convictions.” (unpublished letter, 2019)
Indeed, Johnson had a long-standing association with the abolitionist movement. Amidst the economic Panic of 1857, the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case and the overarching divide of the nation, this connection inevitably underpinned his emotional commitment to creating sympathetic portrayals of slaves in his genre paintings, such as Kitchen at Mount Vernon. Hills explains, “the subject was timely in that turning-point year; the abolitionists’ moral incentives 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, 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, New York, 1999, p. 122)
Kitchen at Mount Vernon is an original and superior example of the artist’s truthful, poignant narratives that came to define his legacy as a genre painter. Moreover, the painting is an important contemporary record of the realities of slavery, even amidst the setting of one of our nation’s most treasured historical sites.