Property from a Private Collection, Washington, D.C.
Eastman Johnson (American, 1824-1906)
Indian Family oil on canvas 19 1/8 x 22 3/4in Painted circa 1856-57.
PROVENANCE: The artist Estate of the above Wife and daughter of the artist, New York, by descent Private collection, niece of the artist, by descent Private collection, son of the above, by descent By decent to the present owner, 1960s
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work being compiled by Dr. Patricia Hills.
In the spring of 1856, Eastman Johnson, fresh off a six-year sojourn through Europe, ventured deep into the heartland of America. With $500 in his pocket from his father, the young artist set off to visit his family in the wilderness along the shores of Lake Superior. His sister Sarah had married William H. Newton who was involved in a land speculation firm in the town of Superior, Wisconsin, while his brother Reuben operated a sawmill there. Young Eastman was sent ostensibly to invest in land but spent much of his time over the next two years recording and documenting the Ojibwa people and their way of life.
Johnson was known to have enjoyed his time in Superior and set out to explore the surrounding countryside. He enlisted a guide, learned how to master the handling of a birchbark canoe and for a time in the summer of 1856, lived in a small cabin on nearby Pokegama Bay (fig. 1). Johnson was so enamored with the area that he returned the following year. In a letter dated June 3, 1857, Johnson wrote to his Boston patron Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
One might reasonably wonder what attraction that wild region can have for an artist, in comparison with such advantages as would result to me from your kind & flattering offer , the patronage of the most celebrated in the most refined of places. Perhaps I cannot justify it, but in a visit to that country last season I found so much of the picturesque, & of a character so much to my taste & in my line, that I determined to employ this summer or a portion of it making sketches of Frontier life, the national feature of our present condition & a field for art that is full of interest, & freshness & pleasing nature, & yet that has been but little treated. My chief desire is to paint pictures.
Significantly, Longfellow published his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, a story based on an Ojibwe tale and set in the lands Johnson was then exploring, only a two years earlier in 1855.
Two year prior to Johnson' s arrival in Superior, the Ojibwe of the Mississippi and the Ojibwe Lake Superior entered into a treaty with the United States that was negotiated and signed at La Pointe. The treaty represented a compromise between the parties. The government had been trying for decades to remove the Ojibwe, but this treaty allowed them to stay where they were if they ceded their land but agreed to enter reservations. Grand Portage was one of seven reservations that were established. In return for the land in northeastern Minnesota, they would receive annuities for twenty years in the form of money, cattle, household goods, building materials and education. In short, all of the things that would assist them in leaving their old culture and enter into white society.
Johnson's interest in recording the lifestyles of Native American was not unique in his day. At a time when photography was still rather new, numerous artists from George Catlin to Seth Eastman sought out the native peoples and memorialized them in art. In January of 1856, The Crayon, a journal popular among artists and their patrons, published an editorial entitled "The Indians in American Art":
It seems to us that the Indian has not received justice in American Art... It should be held in dutiful remembrance that he is passing away from the face of the earth. Soon the last red man will have faded forever from his native land, and those who come after us will trust to our scanty records for their knowledge of his habits and appearance...
Later in the summer of 1857 Johnson traveled 150 miles further north to Grand Portage where he settled in with the Ojibwe at their newly created reservation (fig. 2). There he would execute numerous small charcoal and crayon drawings as well as oil sketches focusing on individuals, their dress, and daily life. Thirty-nine of Johnson's works are in the possession of the St. Louis County Historical Society in Duluth, Minnesota. Of these, there are twenty-one drawings and twelve small scale oils. They are direct and immediate studies, a number of which are dated between August 24 and October 22 of that year. The dating suggests that they were done in the field and carried back to his studio for use in future compositions. A later photograph of Johnson's studio shows a number of these canvases hanging in the background. Here we see Johnson transforming from his early pre-European career as a portraitist and using those talents to set about assemble "pictures."
From the sketches Johnson did in those years, he was to produce but a handful of finished pictures. The present work, Indian Family, is one of the few finished compositions of this period known to exist. Based on the similarity in canvas and stretcher type to two portraits at the St. Louis County Historical Society that were know to be executed in Superior, it is likely that the present work was produced in his studio there. Indian Family is a finished composition and employs many of the elements found in his drawings and sketches, however it is much more carefully composed, and there is more attention to detail than to be found in the rest of his oil sketches from this period. Throughout his renderings of Ojibwe, aside from their physiognomy and dress, the three objects that consistently appear in this body of work are the bent-wood cradleback, the birch-bark canoe and the wigwam. Here Johnson employs two of the three motifs: the wigwam and the cradleback (fig.3).
Indian Family is not merely a portrayal of life among the Indians, but a conscious comment on the new trajectory of the Ojibwe and their recent acceptance of reservation life. The painting is one of contrasts illustrating the old and new worlds that were colliding at that moment and would ultimately push the Ojibwe from a life of independence to one increasingly dependent on governmental largess.
Central in Indian Family is the figure of the old man who peers out to the viewer. Through his face and hair, he is entirely a man of the Ojibwe. A goodly percentage of Johnson's extant drawings and oil sketches focus on recording the physiognomy of the people, and he is unmistakably Indian (fig. 4). However, in dress he is clothed in a manner similar to the white settlers with a jacket, long trousers and soled shoes. Curiously, his stature and dress is not unlike the figure of the man in a cabin that has been suggested to be a self-portrait of Johnson (fig. 1). He sits in a turned wood captain's chair resting his hand on a cane and holding a clay pipe. It should be noted that the chair, a few years earlier, would have been very rare sight indeed. Also, the man appears to be smoking the pipe as a leisurely pursuit, rather than in a ceremonial way. Other than the high cheekbones and long hair, he is nearly unrecognizable as an Ojibwe indicating that he has entirely succumbed to white ways. By contrast, the young child is the expression of the traditional way of life. Johnson depicts the infant leaning against the cabin next to the male figue, swaddled in a blanket made on Ojibwe looms and set in a cradleback.
In addition to the figures, perhaps a more telling comparison can be made between the two structures. Partially shaded, and slowly being eclipsed by the shadow of the large storehouse stands a traditional Ojibwe wigwam with two female figures in the doorway. The swaths of birchbark are laid in a seemingly haphazard way at all manner of odd angles and the hastily trimmed supports poke through the roof at irregular intervals. In contrast, the government storehouse is made entirely of right angles of hewn wood from its trabeated doorway to the staccato rhythm of the uniform logs at the corner joint. Next to the man's foot lies a long board which no doubt served as a ramp for a wheelbarrow to retrieve goods stored in the cabin. Johnson uses this solid structure as a representation of the future of the Ojibwe as they settle down and give up the mobile and impermanent life that the wigwam previously afforded them.
Of the extant oil sketches, Indian Family is by far the most sophisticated composition and finished work. Most are small scale extemporaneous sketches, yet there are a couple of significant works worth noting. Recently, an oil of an Ojibwe camp, most likely Grand Portage, appeared on the art market (Christies, New York, May 22, 2013, lot 31). The Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma also possesses a very similar composition also titled Indian Family (fig. 5). However, in both examples a number of the figures retain the sketch-like elements found in the other oils. The present composition is in every sense a completed work and represents the culmination of Johnson's work in Superior and Grand Portage. The present work probably remained with the family as it was the most important painting from this period of his career. The remainder of his works from this period were often initialed or signed by his widow in order to be sold. The fact that this painting is not signed is a testament to its importance in the Johnson family.
Fig.1 Cabin Interior (Superior on Pokegama Bay, St. Louis River), 1856, Eastman Johnson, From the Permanent Collection of the St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minnesota, #62.181.26
Fig. 2 Camp Scene at Grand Portage, 1857, Eastman Johnson, From the Permanent Collection of the St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minnesota, #62.181.01
Fig 3 Ojibwe Camp Scene, Eastman Johnson, From the Permanent Collection of the St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minnesota, #62.181.4
Fig. 4 Studies of an Ojibwe Man, 1857, Eastman Johnson, From the Permanent Collection of the St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minnesota, #62.181.6
Fig. 5 - Portrait of an Indian Family, Eastman Johnson, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK
We wish to thank the staff of the St. Louis County Historical Society for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.