Saturday, July 25, 2015

Catch a Snapshot of History with the Eastman Johnson Exhibit at the St. Louis County Historical Society

Ojibwe Wigwam in Grand Portage
He was a co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with his name inscribed on the entrance. Though best known for his paintings of everyday life, he also had the privilege of painting such significant Americans as Abraham Lincoln, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the 1850's he was known as The American Rembrandt. And this summer a collection of his drawings and paintings is featured in the Depot courtesy the St. Louis County Historical Society.

It's actually an unusual and even remarkable collection of pieces, and how it came about is equally fascinating. New England-born in 1824 Eastman Johnson was the youngest of eight children. When he grew up his interest in art was cultivated through an apprenticeship with a lithographer. At age twenty he supported himself in Washington, D.C. by means of making drawings, two of his subjects being Dolly Madison and John Quincy Adams. In his twenties he went to Europe and studied painting in Düsseldorf, Germany. This interest was furthered by studying at The Hague in the Netherlands where he studied the Dutch Masters.

Notin E Garbo Wik
Eastman's skills were quite quite advanced upon his return to the States, and his interests greatly expanded. In 1856 he made a trip to our region in order to visit his sister in Superior, Wisconsin. This was before the land grants that brought trainloads of people to this then-remote region of the country. He obtained a mixed-race guide named Stephen Bonga, who was Ojibwe and African-American, and visited the native Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) peoples here in the Northland. Throughout 1857 Johnson painted at Grand Portage, the Apostle Islands, and Isle Royale.

It is a collection of paintings from this period which you will find on display here at the Depot. His draftsmanship skills are immediately evident, but of special interest is are the beautiful surfaces on the paintings. The exquisite subtlety is most likely missed by the casual observer, but the beautiful manner in which he almost stains the canvas with color is worth a closer look, especially by fellow painters.

In addition to the paintings by Johnson there's a full-sized birchbark canoe in the gallery space matching one that appears in a painting here. There's also another Ojibwe artifact with an estimated 40,000 beads in it's designs.

The local Masonic Temple has been a conservator of the collection and it is a very special gift to the community for these works to be shared here.

Highly recommended; visit the Plein Air exhibition in the John Steffl Gallery and then take time to take in the Eastman Johnson works on display here. Take the elevator to the fourth floor, turn right and walk through the door toward the stairs. The entrance to this space will be on your left.

Ojibwe Women
Grand Portage
Ojibwe Girl
Camp Scene
Some of the information for this blog post came from the Wikipedia story on Eastman Johnson.

The official title of the show is "Eastman Johnson: Paintings and Drawings of the Lake Superior Ojibwe." The works have been made available courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, in association with the St. Louis County Historical Society.

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