Past Collection Highlight - Eastman Johnson

Eastman Johnson The Boy LincolnAn American Portrait

With the tolling tolling bells' perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Walt Whitman, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, 1865

In the years following the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, America's artists and poets helped mourn, then heal the country of its grief and suffering. Eastman Johnson's portrayal of Lincoln may have brought solace by invoking the quintessential American traits that Lincoln embodied-humility, hard work, self-reliance, and a desire for knowledge. This work presents a young Lincoln, who, like our country, glowed with future promise even in early years of hardship and darkness.

The future President sits alone in a dim cabin, lit only by firelight. The rustic hearth recalls a humble cabin of Lincoln's youth in the early 19th century, but also symbolizes the warmth of home and peaceful times of a nearly bygone era. Engrossed in his reading, the self-educated boy leans toward the modest hearth flame. The painter chose to illuminate the scene by a single light source, causing the solitary figure and the white pages of his book to emerge from the dark shadows. The firelight both contributes to the realism of the painting and serves as a metaphor for enlightenment and learning.

Eastman Johnson was a successful genre painter, celebrated for his realistic scenes of everyday American life and character. He applied techniques learned in Europe to create sympathetic portrayals of American slave life and waning rustic lifestyles in his native New England. Johnson also completed numerous portraits of prominent American politicians and literary figures. The Boy Lincoln (also referred to as The Boyhood of Lincoln) combines many essential qualities of an Eastman Johnson painting: a portrait of an important American, depicted with realism in an everyday setting, using devices that evoke the honorable character traits for which the individual was revered.

Shortly after Lincoln's death, Johnson's painting, like Walt Whitman's elegy When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, acknowledged the country's profound sorrow, but looked ahead toward the rebirth of hope and the endurance of the American spirit.

The Boy Lincoln in the KIA collection is one of three related compositions by Eastman Johnson housed in Michigan museums. For an in-depth review of these, check out this "online exhibition."

Karla Niehus
Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions