Old Kentucky Home: Life in the South (Negro Life at the South)
An anonymous critic praised Johnson’s Old Kentucky Home when it appeared at an exhibition in New York in 1859:
“One of the best pictures in respect to Art and the most popular, because presenting familiar aspects of life, is E. Johnson’s Negro Life at the South. Here are several groups of negroes, who are assembled in the rear of a dilapidated house….Although a very humble subject the picture is a very instructive one in relation to Art. It is conscientiously studied and painted, and full of ideas. Nothwithstanding the general ugliness of the forms and objects, we recognize that its sentiment is one of beauty, for imitation and expression are vitalized by conveying to our mind the enjoyment of human beings in new and vivid aspects.”
Anonymous, “The National Academy of Design,” Crayon, vol . 6 (June 1859): 189; cited in Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Civil Struggle 1848-1871 (Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 433.
John Davis explains the importance of understanding the original context in which Johnson painted Negro Life at the South :
“Assessments of Johnson’s painting during the first decade of its life obviously varied widely, and the pendulum continues to say today, as any survey of the recent literature on Negro Life at the South makes clear. What is lost in most such attempts to essentialize the meaning ot the work, however, is an understanding of the original context of the painting; the Washington scene of urban slavery experienced firsthand by the artist and conveyed with understanding and sympathy in his view of the interior of his family’s F Street block. There is every indication that he was profoundly affected by the specifics of daily urban life for African Americans in the city. The mise-en-scène of his painting displays a marked awareness of the politics of spatial control, the particular architectural makeup of urban slave quarters, and the complex negotiations of slave life under the constant eye of white masters. His residence near F and Thirteenth Streets, moreover, placed him at an astounding geographic convergence of four decades of controversy relating to Washington slavery. By formulating his representation in the District of Columbia, by exposing its ‘secret city,’ Eastman Johnson unavoidably entered into the heated public debate surrounding slavery in the United States. The political rhetoric that attached itself to the image in 1859, however, would not allow for an argument based on the disquieting specifics catalogued in Negro Life at the South. While a deliberate conspiracy to retitle, reshape, and reinterpret Negro Life at the South in the years following its first exhibition can almost certainly be discounted, the end result was very much as if it had existed. With its topical references forgotten, the image becomes softened and blurred, more easily shaped and prodded by its eager interpreters. Particularly in the hands of proslavery viewers, it lost its potential to instruct the public on the nature of urban slavery in the nation’s capital.”
John Davis, “Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, DC,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 80, no. 1 (March 1998): 88.