Civil War Symbolism

by Nona Martin

Is Eastman Johnson's Union Soldiers Accepting a Drink part of a post-Civil War dialogue on race relations?

The addition of Eastman Johnson's Union Soldiers Accepting a Drink to the Museum of Art's permanent collection is a cause for celebration for people interested in American art and history. Removed from the isolation of a private collection and now on public view in the Scaife Gallery, this painting depicts a seldom-rendered scene from 19th-century American culture. It also illustrates an American artist's definition of a new genre of painting, and reveals his successful achievement of European artistic standards. To historians and Civil War scholars it offers insight into the role and interreliance of black and white women within slave communities during the American Civil War. Recently, new information on slavery has emerged suggesting the complexity and multi-faceted nature of slave communities. Yet, rarely has this been visually portrayed in such a small, superbly executed canvas, a canvas described by Johnson's biographer, Patricia Hills, as "typical of Johnson's best paintings."

The painting, measuring a mere 10 3/4 x 15 1/4 inches, may have been a preliminary study for a later Johnson painting entitled Dinnertime and Appletime in Old Virginia, a slightly larger work (22 x 25 1/2 inches) that is now apparently lost. However, certain elements were eliminated in the latter work which drastically altered its poignant narrative. The description of Dinnertime and Appletime in Old Virginia in a 1907 sale catalogue of Johnson's paintings reveals that the only person depicted is a negro woman summoning men to dinner-the artist has removed the Union Soldiers, the young girl watching the scene, and a distant woman in the fields:

In the right foreground is the corner of a wooden house, which stands on a stone wall laid without mortar, and in the doorway stands a negro woman blowing a tin horn, apparently summoning the men to come to dinner. An apple tree, laden with fruit, an arch of climbing roses and other vines cast a broad shadow across the foreground, through which a tiny brook runs over a rocky bed. In the middle distance is seen an old-fashioned garden, with sunflowers and vegetables, all in brilliant sunlight, and beyond a vista over a meadow to a blue hill in the horizon. #1

Union Soldiers Accepting a Drink is undated and unsigned. Artists usually do not date or sign their preliminary smaller studies for later works, and Union Soldiers is smaller than Dinnertime, suggesting its earlier origin. The composition of Union Soldiers is similar to that of other antebellum Johnson paintings in which a drama is enacted in separate vignettes. Much attention to detail, skillful rendering of the slave dwelling, realistic modeling of the figures and the massing of lights and shadows are all trademarks of Johnson's American genre paintings.2 #

Union Soldiers contains three distinct vignettes set in a rural area sometime around the American Civil War. Several artistic conventions unify the vignettes-an overlapping archway, patterns of light and shade, and a shared yard functions as a proscenium for the drama being enacted. The scene in the right side of the painting shows an African-American woman providing a drink to two Union soldiers resting by the building from which she emerges. The CAKE/BEER sign above the doorway suggests the beverage she is serving them.

A second, and perhaps more important, vignette is prominently placed in the center of the painting. An African-American girl is seen in profile intently observing the interaction among the soldiers and the black woman. The girl's role as observer and her enigmatic gaze seem to be the reasons for her central location. However, her position in the painting-in the center of the pathway, against a brilliantly lit meadow, and under a fruitful arch-suggests that she has other duties and, hence, has a more meaningful connection with the scene.

In the left side of the painting, the third vignette contains an abundant wheat field, clearly separated from the pathway, structure and activities of the African-American women. Interestingly, Johnson places an Anglo-American woman in the wheat field. This position emphasizes her disassociation from the activity at hand. Painted in quick brush strokes, the woman is barely visible and stands seemingly unaware of the African-American women's delivery of comfort and support to the Union soldiers.

As in other Johnson genre paintings, duplicity is suggested by the placement of symbols throughout the painting. The orderly arrangement and size of the stones supporting the house, as well as the older African-American woman and the Union soldiers, a squirrel skin attached to the exterior of the structure, and a stream that flows from the house, terminating at a point horizontal to the African-American girl's feet, all suggest that Johnson has endowed this scene with additional meanings which remain uncertain.

In questioning Johnson's intent and message, we are encouraged to ponder the role of women-both black and white, individually and collectively, in and out of slavery-in the American Civil War. Johnson's background, his observations and southern travels, and a review of some of his paintings that portray African-Americans, provide insight into his point of view.

Eastman Johnson was born into a politically prominent Maine family in 1824. Largely self-taught, he earned a reputation as a portraitist in charcoal and pastel. After establishing himself as a fashionable artist with some of the political and social elite in Washington, D.C. (of special note are his connections to Dolly Madison and Mrs. Alexander Hamilton), he traveled to Europe in 1849 to further his training and to study the old masters. In 1855, after his travels and studies at the Düsseldorf Academy, The Hague and Paris (the latter under the tutelage of Thomas Couture), he returned to the United States. Thoroughly versed in the methods of realist painting and deeply impressed by the work of Rembrandt and Millet, Johnson sought to apply his learning to subjects uniquely American, notably slave life in the South during the late 1850s and 1860s. His early genre paintings and his scenes of New England life executed in the late 1870s are recognized as his finest works. By the 1880s Johnson's need for money dictated his return to portraiture, and this dominated the remainder of his artistic career.

Of special interest in Johnson's development and career is his observation of Union troops and an 1857 commission from the Mount Vernon Association to illustrate George Washington's historic home prior to its initial restoration. Resulting works included The Wounded Drummer Boy (one version in situ at the Frick Art and Historical Center); Washington's Kitchen at Mt. Vernon, Mt. Vernon, VA; Civil War Scene, Brooklyn Museum; The Field Hospital, Boston Museum of Fine Arts; and A Ride for Liberty- The Fugitive Slaves, The Brooklyn Museum.3 The scene in A Ride for Liberty was actually witnessed and attested to by Johnson.

Johnson's promotion of a distinct American genre in painting began with his Negro Life in the South (Old Kentucky Home) in 1859. Currently on view at the New York Historical Society, it is the painting for which he is best remembered. Life in the South was primarily executed and exhibited to secure Johnson's acceptance into the prestigious National Academy of Design. The painting shows a panoramic view of a slave scene in which groups of slaves are arranged against a disheveled, dilapidated structure adjacent to a sturdy brick building. Six isolated vignettes are incorporated into this slave scene-a courting couple, a woman with a baby protruding from a second-floor window, a banjo player and young boy, a woman and her dancing children, two girls at play and, a richly attired light-skinned woman and her companion. A typical interpretation of the highly symbolic rooster-and here we see one on the roof-is that a wake-up call is being issued.

Initially, the painting was well-received by the art establishment, and it earned the dubious distinction of being approved by both pro-slavery and abolitionist groups. Slavery proponents regarded it as an apologia for slavery, and northern abolitionists saw the dilapidated structure as symbolizing the crumbling institution of slavery. Nonetheless, its interpretation as a nostalgic and sympathetic view of slavery was maintained until very recently. Within the last decade, art history scholars have concluded that the painting is indeed an enigma and may have been coded to be understood only by the initiated.4 #In arguing for a more thoroughly analysis, some scholars have suggested that Johnson may have encouraged antebellum viewers to ponder the fate of mulattos and their ultimate placement in 19th-century American society.5 #

Corn Husking of 1860 (Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York) is another painting that is infused with hidden meaning. An inscription on the barn door, "Lincoln/Hamlon" [sic], and the strategic placement of a rifle against the door, may have been intended to deliver an ominous message in this genre painting. Like Dinnertime and Appletime in Old Virginia, the painting was changed and the inscription altered to read "The Union Forever" in Currier and Ives 1861 print reproductions.

Toward the end of the Civil War, Johnson's position on slavery crystallized as he incorporated images of African-American in positions of freedom and dignity. The title of an 1860 work, Freedom Ring, revealed the political direction to which Johnson had advanced. Although the narrative of the painting is somewhat unclear, its title and patronage suggest that Johnson may have communicated with abolitionists, and perhaps sympathized with their cause. The painting, which is now lost, depicted a seated mulatto girl gazing at a ring. It was commissioned by the Rev. Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, in commemoration of a church member's donation of a wedding ring to help in financing the girl's escape from slavery. Additionally, Johnson's subsequent paintings of African-Americans were governed by themes of freedom as in A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive Slave of 1862, and of the need to educate former slaves as in The Chimney Corner of 1863.

Thus we can begin to understand that from the engaging encounter of the older African-American woman and the Union soldiers, to the graceful, contemplative solitude of both the African-American girl and the Anglo-American woman, Union Soldiers Accepting a Drink is actually a rare painting in American art that it reveals peaceful interactions between blacks and whites during a time of great conflict. Today's viewers may well regard this work as a symbolic statement of the interreliance and mutual support between black and white races. Further study of symbolism that may yield other arguments to future art historians is warranted. Symbols such as the CAKE/BEER sign, the squirrel skin nailed to the building, the flowing stream and the arrangement and orderly placement of the bricks supporting the structure are indications of concealed meaning in the painting. Additionally, the placement of the African-American girl may suggest that she connects the action of the nurturing African-American woman and the contemplative Anglo-American woman.

Does this pensive girl, who has guided the soldiers to this place of comfort, represent a new generation of African-Americans who are expected to usher in an era of self-support and interreliance?


1. Catalogue of Finished Pictures, Studies and Drawings by the Late Eastman Johnson, N.A., 1907. These artworks were sold at an unrestricted public sale by Mrs. Eastman Johnson at the American Art Galleries, Madison Square South, New York City.

2#. Patricia Hills makes this assertion in her June 29, 1990, letter after observing the painting 10 days earlier.

3. Ibid.

4#. Hugh Honour, The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. 4, Part I, Cambridge, 1989, 217.

5. See Nona Martin, Negro Life at the South: Eastman Johnson Rendition of Slavery and Miscegenation, M.A. thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 1984.

Nona Martin received her M.A. in art history from the University of Pittsburgh and is a former education specialist in the Museum of Art's outreach program.