Saturday, May 28, 2011

Eastman Johnson, ‘The Brown Family’ (1869)

Johnson painted in a variety of styles and genres, but this image demonstrates one of his favourite themes; American domesticity. ‘The Brown Family’ was painted in 1869 and features James and Eliza Brown sat with their grandson in the parlour of their New York home.

I picked this image because I found the painting particularly striking. What most interested me was the fact that the image is not reminiscent of the ‘typical’ or conventional portrait. While the main subjects are obviously the family, the room itself acts as a fourth character. The man and woman, dressed predominantly in black, are dull amidst the vibrant colours of the room’s fabrics. The room, and its objects, tell us a great deal about the family. John Davis suggests that the family “…are as much defined by their relationships to each other as by their relationship to their surroundings.” (1)

While more can be learnt about the people by their clothes and activities, it is interesting that even more information is provided by what they own. The typical American value of consumerism as a defining element to a person’s character is worth noting here. (Consider when we read ‘Sister Carrie’ in year 2 and the notion of a person being defined by what they have, not who they are.)

The most obvious and striking aspect of this portrait is that the family are from a wealthy background. Johnson was criticised when he began to paint a series of similar portraits which all featured well-off New York families in domestic situations but as John Davis argues, these paintings are now commonly thought of as ‘classic Johnson’.

(1) Davis, J., 'Children in the Parlor: Eastman Johnson's "Brown Family" and the Post-Civil War Luxury Interior', p.53

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