Eastman Johnson: Boyhood of Lincoln

In recognition of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts created this online "exhibition," highlighting three great works of art that trace one artist's reaction to this tragic event.

After Lincoln's assassination (April 15, 1865), many artists created sculpture, poetry, and paintings to express their own grief and to help the country heal. The Boyhood of Lincoln (Collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art), by Eastman Johnson, was unusual in that it depicted Lincoln, not as the war-worn President, but as a young boy reading by firelight in his childhood cabin.

Eastman Johnson (1824-1906)
Trained as a printmaker, Eastman Johnson aspired to be an accomplished painter. He found early success as a portraitist to the wealthy and famous of Washington DC, including John Quincy Adams, Dolly Madison, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After further training in Germany and studying the Dutch Masters, Johnson began to paint American "genre" paintings, or scenes of everyday life. Eventually, he became more recognized for his genre paintings than for his portraits.

Important Dates

  • 1865 Lincoln's assassination
  • 1865-7 Study for The Boy Lincoln Reading, Detroit Institute of Arts
  • 1867 The Boy Lincoln, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
  • 1868 The Boyhood of Lincoln, University of Michigan Museum of Art

boyhood1Study of an Icon

Eastman Johnson, Study for The Boy Lincoln Reading, 1865-67, charcoal, white chalk and gouache on brown paper. (14 7/8 in. x 12 3/4 in.) Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts; Gift of John S. Newberry, 47.364

This is Eastman Johnson's initial study for The Boyhood of Lincoln. Drawn on simple brown paper, the artist concentrates on the boy's hands and face. Each is cast in a strong, white light. Why does the artist show Lincoln as a boy? Johnson chose a youthful Lincoln as a metaphor for the young United States. Both glow with promise, exuberance, and naivet , before hardship and darkness befall them. The boy and the book are illuminated by an unseen light source. Perhaps the light symbolizes Lincoln's-and consequently America's-bright future that will be attained through knowledge and persistence? Or perhaps the artist is referencing Lincoln's role as a provider of hope and enlightenment to the dark era of slavery.


Taking it to the Next Level
Eastman Johnson, The Boy Lincoln,1867, oil on panel. (35 3/4 x 31 in.) Collection of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts; Purchase: acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor

Does this painting change your perspective on the drawing?
Here, Johnson begins to develop more context. The light now comes from a visible source: a stone fireplace that suffuses the room with a soft glow. We can see the rough floorboards and simple furnishings of Lincoln's boyhood home. Although there are slight adjustments to the boy's position, he maintains the same concentration and innocence as in the drawing. The foreground and background are clearly separated by light and dark. Could the quickly receding dark space be a pictorial device to help focus the viewer's attention on the foreground action? Or could it serve some symbolic purpose?


Finishing it off
Eastman Johnson, Boyhood of Lincoln,1868, oil on canvas. (46 7/16 in. x 37 5/16 in.) University of Michigan Museum of Art; Bequest of Henry C. Lewis, 1895.90

How do background and color changes affect your interpretation of this final piece?
The glow from the fire is now more luminous with a warmer, red tone that reflects off Lincoln's face and body. Why make such a significant adjustment from the previous painting? Perhaps Johnson felt the painted study was too dark and somber. The additional light certainly calls our attention to all the background details of the room, providing even more context for the eye to peruse.

Which painting do you prefer?
Perhaps the more spare image that allows for symbolic interpretation is intriguing to some, while the more cheerful genre scene warms the hearts of others.

Upon completion of this final work, prints were made of the image which allowed Lincoln's youthful face to enter American homes around the country. This mass distribution of Eastman's image may have helped many Americans heal after the assassination.

How 'The Mitten' Got all Three - Lucky Coincidence
How did all three original works come to reside in Michigan? The DIA has no record of how the drawing came into their collection from John S. Newberry. The KIA's painting was purchased at auction in 2009 through an anonymous donor. According to University of Michigan records, The Boyhood of Lincoln was originally exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1868 with no owner identified. By 1875, it was owned by Henry C. Lewis and was given to the University of Michigan in 1895 with the rest of Lewis's collection.

-- Created by Megan Riley