Jonathan Eastman Johnson was born in the Oxford County town of Lovell, Maine, in July 1824. He became one of the primary American artists of his time, eventually co-founding New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art. He became most famous for his portraits of notable American figures, like the founding father Abraham Lincoln, as well as genre scenes, receiving the nickname the American Rembrandt.
Johnson was born into a large family, being the last born out of eight children. His mother was Mary Kimball Chandler, and his father, a businessman, was Philip Carrigan Johnson. His parents were quite supportive of his artistic career, and in 1840, Eastman began his first apprenticeship learning the art of lithography. In 1846, he settled in Boston, and three years later, he went abroad to study at the Kunstakedemie Dusseldorf, in Germany.
By the end of the 1840s, Philip was appointed Chief Clerk of the Navy Department. This opportunity forced the Johnson family to move to DC, where they eventually settled near the White House. The artist, in his early twenties, was already working with portraits, mostly in crayon, which helped him make a living. Eastman lived in this home with his family from 1853 until the late 1850s, when he moved to New York City.
During the same period in which the Johnsons moved to Washington, the artist continued traveling to Germany, where he became part of the Dusseldorf School of Painting and by 1851 was studying under Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. Eastman continued traveling in search of knowledge. Throughout his endeavor, he settled sometime in Hague to study the works of Dutch and Flemish masters of the XVII century. Lastly, the American painter studied under Thoman Couture in Paris.
After the death of his mother, Mary, in 1855, Johnson returned to the US. A year later, he traveled to the city of Superior, Wisconsin, where he visited his sister and Stephen Bonga. The artist visited the Ojibwe with Bonga as a guide, where he portrayed the native Anishinaabe in intimate artworks, showing them as humans in their daily life.
Eastman was praised throughout his career. The American artist exhibited works at the National Academy of Design and a member of New York’s private Union League Club. His work was deeply influenced by the Realist painter Jean-François Millet. By the end of his career, Eastman leaned more towards references of the Dutch masters of the XVII century.
He married Elizabeth Buckley in 1869, and they had a daughter a year later, named Ethel Eastman Johnson. He died in April 1906, in New York City.