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Images of play.

Images of play

Looking carefully

Children playing on an abandoned stagecoach calls to mind visual memories of childhood fantasy. Every generation has used the playful power of imagination to create--and recreate--fanciful games and adventures from cast-off objects. The natural desire to innovate, explore and discover is developed when children are allowed to encounter objects and spaces on their own terms. Something as simple as a discarded refrigerator packing box, or a secluded attic space can become a castle, a dungeon, a rocket ship, a distant planet--anything the young mind can envision. Roles, rules of interaction and, eventually, games can evolve from this playful--but essential--childhood activity.

In Eastman Johnson's The Old Stagecoach, children are frolicking about an abandoned stagecoach on a bright summer day. They have thrown aside their school books and lunch pails and plunged into the fanciful play of childhood, mimicking horses, a grownup driver and ladylike passengers. Around the bend, two more children hurry to join the fun. The painting tells a uniquely American story, and it is not surprising that it proved to be immensely popular when it was shown at the National Academy of Design Annual Exhibition of 1871.

Children were greatly sentimentalized in nineteenth-century art and literature, whether saintly little Evas or naughty Tom Sawyers. The charms of childhood were especially praised by a self-conscious America, a country that defined itself in terms used typically to describe children: youthful energy, unconventional daring, unspoiled naivete and moral goodness. This sentimentality can also be understood in practical terms: healthy children were one of America's prized national products to be nurtured carefully in order to swell the ranks of its citizenry.

Up to Johnson's time, genre painting in America had tended to patronize its subject matter, to follow established conventions in depicting the amusing and quaint ways of country yokels. The Old Stagecoach is representative of Johnson's break from tradition. He eliminated the comic faces and the exaggerated gestures common to genre painting, but he still individualized the figures. He presented scenes of everyday life that related to the lives of the people for whom he painted. Johnson depicted the myth--the collective fantasy of a nation--that hard work was not only virtous but joyful. To a young nation struggling to become a major power this idealization of the working farmer and pioneer was, we can see now, a national necessity.

Today we see Johnson as a painter who brought more sophisticated techniques to America, who extended the range of "American" subjects, often transplanting traditional European themes, and who brought a more dignified and democratic content to genre painting. He spoke to and for his generation, and he was a great influence on a number of genre painters such as Thomas Waterman Wood, J.G. Brown, Thomas Hovenden, George C. Lambdin, and others. But he also lived through a time of transition.

One of the significant conflicts of this transition was between the Impressionists and the "genre realists." The radical break occured when Manet and the Impressionists insisted that a spontaneous impression of a subject is more truthful to nature than subsequent, highly finished, studio-rendered work. They insisted upon this point because, as avowed realists, they believed that truthfulness to nature rather than right sentiment satisfied the prime requirements of art. To adherents of such an artistic philosophy, finished studio work was not just superfluous but contemptibly artificial.

While Johnson continued to produce anecdotal and sentimental pictures, he simultaneously experimented with a lighter palette, looser brushwork and summary treatment of forms. In the broad context of American art, it is the work of Eastman Johnson that forges the strongest link between the genre painting of mid-century and the realism of the late century.


Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip was painted about the same time as Johnson's The Old Stagecoach. Both Homer and Johnson were interested in depicting the character of a young, robust, creative nation. Notice the similar costumes and the children's bare feet. The very strong triangular compositions of both paintings may also be representative of the strength of the young nation.

While both Homer and Johnson were realists, the palette, paint application and "atmosphere" of the paintings are noticeably different. While Johnson depicts trees and foliage in a literal "realist" style, Homer tends to capture more of an impression of a moment in time. Look closely at the background of Snap the Whip to see evidence of impressionist influence.

The artists' approaches to creating their work also differ. Homer took pains to draw directly from nature, while Johnson, following the practice of the genre painters, often took various sketches and images back to the studio to recreate the scene. Compare the action of the figures in the two paintings. How do they differ? How does each artist's style contribute to the overall effect of the paintings?

Key concepts . Art provides a record of cultural change. . Both tradition and innovation are intrinsic to the art of a society. . A changing environment can provide stimulus for art expression. . Often visible in an artist's style are fragments of previous styles that have influenced him or her. . Visual symbols communicate cultural meanings.

PHOTO : Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip, 1872. Oil on canvas, 22 1/4" X 36 1/2" (56 cm X 93 cm). The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH.
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Title Annotation:Looking-Learning; art education, includes tear out lesson and art print
Author:Doornek, Richard
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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