For Immediate Release
Gibbes Museum of Art Announces New Acquisition
Eastman Johnson painting symbolizes freedom in the face of slavery in the American South
(Charleston, SC) – Eastman Johnson’s Dinah, Portrait of a Negress joins the Gibbes’ collection as a visual representation of the strength of enslaved African-Americans and augments the Museum’s collection of work that preserves and illustrates this chapter in American history. The subject of the painting is thought to be modeled after abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who helped over 300 slaves escape the oppression of the South via the Underground Railroad during her lifetime. The painting is currently on view on the first floor of the Gibbes as part of the ongoing exhibition Art in the South: the Charleston Perspective.
During the decade between the late 1850s and the late 1860s, Eastman Johnson often painted enslaved African-Americans in settings focusing on their way of life or in more intimate portraits, capturing the poignancy of their plight. The name Dinah was a generic appellation frequently used to refer to African-American women in the nineteenth century and is used in the title of Johnson’s piece, though it is likely that the inspiration was Harriet Tubman. In the intimate portrait Dinah, Portrait of a Negress, Johnson depicts a strong woman with a determined expression. Powerfully holding her cane, she represents a collective longing for a better tomorrow. Photographic evidence and a woodcut from the book Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman demonstrate a resemblance to the abolitionist heroine and it is likely that the work was created as a symbol of the Abolitionist movement. A letter from Dr. Patricia Hills, who is preparing the catalogue raisonné on the work of Eastman Johnson, points out that Johnson did more paintings of African Americans than any other 19th-century genre painting and that this painting is one of his most sensitive studies. Members of his family were abolitionists, and they all would have known of the heroic rescues that Tubman made to take slaves to freedom.
Eastman Johnson, along with William Sydney Mount and Winslow Homer, is one of America’s most highly regarded genre painters of the nineteenth century. He began his career as a portrait draftsman in Washington and Boston and began studying oil painting in Düsseldorf and Paris in 1849. It was after his return to the United States in 1855 that he began to focus on genre subjects. Johnson’s depictions of American life capture the strife of the Civil War era while his later, more sentimental paintings express the nation’s return to pastoral life and tranquility.
Dinah, Portrait of a Negress has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Seattle Museum of Art as part of the traveling exhibition Eastman Johnson: Painting America. This acquisition was funded in part by Ms. Kathleen Hammer, Mr. Arthur Seelbinder, Debra Force Fine Art, Inc. (New York, NY) and private donations made at the Gibbes’ 2006 fundraising gala.
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Established as the Carolina Art Association in 1858, the Gibbes Museum of Art opened its doors to the public in 1905.
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