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The Chimney Corner

On view

The Chimney Corner

Artist: Eastman Johnson (American, 1824 - 1906)

Date: 1863
Medium: Oil on cardboard, with an original frame
Framed: 25 x 22 1/2in. (63.5 x 57.2cm)
Overall: 15 1/2 x 13 1/4in. (39.4 x 33.7cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'E. Johnson / 1863'
Credit Line: Gift of Edmund G. Munson, Jr.
Object number: 64.116
Label Text
Johnson painted this work the same year President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared that "all persons held as slaves . . . shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Because African-American illiteracy was widespread, Johnson's image of a dignified, black man receiving enlightenment from the book that rests on his lap was, in its time, a provocative image. In addition to emancipation and the right to vote, the outcome of the Civil War gave African-Americans access to public education for the first time. The light that shines down on him from an unknown source suggests that his pursuit of the wisdom contained in the book is divinely sanctioned. Another version of this painting in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum has a slightly different title, and suggests that the book on the figure's lap is a Christian Bible.

The message embedded in this work imparts to it a level of seriousness not typically found in American genre paintings, which typically depict less politically-charged scenes of everyday life. Another painting that Johnson exhibited in Utica in 1866, titled The Innocent Cause of the War (now lost or unidentified) suggests that Johnson explored ideas about emancipation in other paintings as well.

Paul D. Schweizer

Aside from its slightly smaller size and deeper cove, the frame on Johnson's painting is similar in design to the one on the John O'Brien Inman painting, Uncle Dick, 1863 (72.44) in the Museum's collection. Both paintings have the same leaf (or flower) forms in the corners. The two frames were more than likely not made by the same frame maker but, nevertheless, demonstrate how fashionable frame designs were used by different craftsmen.1 While the innermost liner lacks the rounded corners found in the Inman frame, both frames feature multiple liners with contrasting smooth and textured finishes. Also, like the Inman frame, the outer raised edge is decorated with an overlapping motif, but in this case the geometric design elements are somewhat larger and consistently run in a clockwise fashion around all four sides. The outermost edge features a trefoil motif rather than the scrollwork that is in the same location on the Inman frame.

There is no way of knowing when Johnson's name and the picture's title were painted below the bottom sight edge of the frame. Such lettering, applied directly on the gilded surface, is not commonplace, but can be found on other 19th century American frames.2 Two screw holes along the top, outer edge of the upper horizontal rail suggests that at some point the frame had a lighting fixture affixed to it.

1. Sheldon and Caroline Keck noted in a conservation report they prepared on this painting ("Report to the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute," May 1971) that there was a pencil inscription on the back of the frame that read: "frame ordered Jany 75." This inscription was not found when the frame was examined in August of 2002.

2. [Need to explain in this note whether or not the Smithsonian's frame is of a similar design.]

Paul D. Schweizer
August 2010

For a new, thoughtful reading of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's version of this painting, titled "The Lord is My Shepherd," see Eleanor Harvey's 2012 exhibition catalog, "The Civil War & American Art," (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2012).

Paul D. Schweizer
November 2012

Text Entries

A gifted draftsman, the major artistic Spokesman for post-Civil War rural America, and a figure of wide acquaintance and influence in New York art circles, Eastman Johnson enjoyed a long, productive, and distinguished career. His talent emerged early in portrait studies done in Lovell, Maine, his birthplace, and progressed rapidly through training in Dusseldorf and Paris. When he returned to this country in 1855, he was as advanced technically as any other artist of his generation, and his work continued to grow in breadth and power through the next three decades.

The Chimney Corner builds on lessons Johnson had learned well by 1863. His grasp of form and contour was assured, his figures possess an inner authority, dominating well-defined, Dutch-like spaces, and his brush moves with a broad energy that heightens contrasts of light, color, and texture. In the case of The Chimney Corner, the brushwork almost alone carries the muted physical impact of flesh tones, coarse clothing, and uneven interior surfaces. One senses a lingering touch of Dusseldorf in the somber palette, but more of Thomas Couture, Johnson’s French master, in the painterly manipulation of form and deftly mixed highlights.

Johnson’s picture of a lone black man seated in a rustic interior probably harks back to scenes he had witnessed in Washington, D.C., shortly after his return from abroad. His first statement in this genre was the well-known Life in the South of 1859 (New-York Historical Society), later given the more popular title of Old Kentucky Home. (1) The obvious narrative character of that picture became reduced and concentrated in the years following into a number of scenes of black life that indicate the seriousness with which the artist approached his subjects. “No one of our painters has more truly caught and perfectly delineated the American rustic and negro,” Henry Tuckerman claimed of Johnson in 1867.(2) Hindsight may give us a slightly different perspective, but one can safely say that Johnson, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins were among the few whose work rose above the stereotypical images of black life that preceded and were produced alongside their own.

The Utica picture is almost identical to a painting in the National Museum of American Art entitled The Lord is My Shepherd.(3) According to Tuckerman, The Chimney Corner had found its way into the collection of John Taylor Johnston by 1867;(4) the provenance of The Lord is My Shepherd is unclear, as is the date the painting first assumed that title. Yet the opening line of the Twenty-third Psalm is probably a more accurate representation of what Johnson ultimately meant the painting to convey‘—that the sober black man, the essence of humble piety, guaranteed the faith of the nation. It was a belief with direct parallels to earlier images of peasant life, especially those produced in rural Barbizon, in which tradition, hardship, and poverty were regarded as the true test of piety.

Surrounding the lone black man reading his lesson are all the signs of these so-called virtues. The forlorn and neglected setting is drawn from New England Kitchen (R. Philip Hanes, Jr., Winston-Salem, North Carolina), an interior by Johnson that must have slightly preceded The Chimney Corner.(5) The strong, gnarled hands of the subject attest to a life of toil, his dress and circumstances to enduring poverty. Yet his dignity remains, a factor of his stalwart form and the presence of divine grace—no small comfort during the turbulent years of the Civil War. Only by nourishing such individuals, Johnson seems to be saying, would America truly become a free and independent nation.



1. The painting was originally exhibited as Negro Life at the South. For this title and much of the preceding biographical information, I have drawn upon Patricia Hills, Eastman Johnson, exhibition catalog (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1972). I am also grateful to Dr. Hills for personally suggesting several improvements to this entry.

2. Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (New York: 1867; repr., New York: James F. Carr, Publisher, 1967), p. 467. 

3. Oil on canvas, 16 5/8 X 13 1/8, signed lower left: E. Johnson. Gift of Mrs. Francis P. Garvan, 1962. An apparent study for The Chimney Corner is listed in John I.H. Baur, Eastman Johnson, 1824-1906, exhibition catalog (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1940), p. 90.

4. Tuckerman, p. 624.

5. Another painting by Johnson, Sunday Morning of c. 1866 (New-York Historical Society), incorporates the same setting.


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