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Thursday, 17 January 2013 02:39

Eastman Johnson and his Contemporaries on Nantucket


The artist in his Nantucket studio, ca. 1870s.
Courtesy, NHA collection.

During the post-whaling era of the 1870s–1890s, many prominent American artists were drawn to Nantucket for its antiquated charm and picturesque vistas. George Inness and William Trost Richards were among those who joined the ranks of Nantucket-descended talents such as W. Ferdinand Macy and John Alexander MacDougall Jr. in portraying the island’s lush natural settings, interesting characters, and alluring seascapes and landscapes. Genre painter, portraitist, and chronicler of American life, Eastman Johnson (1824–1906) first visited Nantucket in 1869, and soon took up seasonal residence on the island, purchasing a home and artist studio on North Street (now Cliff Road) in the area known as The Cliff—on the North Shore facing Nantucket Sound. The artist’s island sojourns would inspire some of his most enduring works, including his masterpiece, The Cranberry Harvest—Island of Nantucket (1880). After its completion, Johnson turned his attention to portraiture, taking advantage of the community of grizzled veterans of the sea who haunted Nantucket in the twilight of the nineteenth century, as well as his new neighbors who included retired mariners, civic officials, and practicing artists.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906)
In the Fields, circa 1878–1879
Oil on panel, 19¾ x 27 inches
Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association (1998.23.1).

The artist’s island residence and studio (photograph on page 148) at 41 North Street (now Cliff Road) on The Cliff inspired his masterpiece, The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket (1880), now at the Timken Art Gallery in San Diego, California—one of the most important American paintings composed on Nantucket. The painting formed the culmination of a series of studies, numbering twenty-two, that experiment with composition, arrangements of figures, and varying moods of light and color. In the Fields was created in the period 1878–1879, as Johnson began to finalize his ideas about matters such as the placement of standing, crouched, and seated figures; the details of dress; and the overall balance of tones in the rich autumnal setting of the cliff down the bank from his house—a beautiful expanse of land near the shore blanketed with grasses, wildflowers, and the harvest of ripe cranberries. In an 1879 letter he wrote of his fixation: “I was taken by my cranberry fit as soon as I arrived (some people have Rose fever yearly—I have cranberry fever) as they began picking down on the meadow a day or two after we arrived and I have done nothing else since I have been here, not a thing.”

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906)
Robert Ratliff, 1879
Oil on canvas, 29¼ x 23⅝ inches
Gift of Eastman Johnson (1900.134.1)

Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, Robert Ratliff (1794−1882) served in the Royal Navy and participated in the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. In 1815, he was aboard HMS Northumberland, under command
of Sir George Cockburn, when the British transported Napoleon Bonaparte to St. Helena. Shipwrecked on Nantucket on December 20, 1820, Ratliff remained on island the remainder of his life, having a house at 14 Hussey Street. A trained ship rigger, Ratliff shipped on several whaling voyages before establishing a rigging loft on Straight Wharf. When his loft was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1846, Frederick C. Sanford helped Ratliff secure a position in town government. He is buried in the Old North Cemetery on New Lane.
Eastman Johnson (1824–1906)
Peter Folger, circa 1882
Oil on board, 26¼ x 22¼
Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association (1997.25.1)

Peter Folger (1812–1883) was a neighbor and friend of Johnson’s during his summer stays on The Cliff. Folger lived at 18 North Street (Cliff Road) and acted for many years as the island’s Commissioner of Wrecks. In his prior career he had served on whaleships, and during the gold fever, he had gone west in 1849 on the whaleship Mt. Vernon, of which he was a partial owner. He was also agent for the Board of Underwriters for Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, which had oversight of marine insurance.
Eastman Johnson (1824−1906)
Captain Charles Myrick
(Study for Embers), 1879
Oil on panel, 22 x 20⅞ inches
Gift of F. S. Church (1895.14.1).

Eastman Johnson used Captain Charles Myrick as the subject of a number of paintings, including Nantucket Sea Captain, The Reprimand, and Embers, capturing the spirit of a retired captain confined to island retirement. Myrick was born into an old Nantucket family, and had been captain of the coastal trading vessel Abel Hoyt in the 1850s. Here, Johnson portrays him in reflective decline, holding a Malacca cane with an ivory handle, once a symbol of fashionable elegance but now a sign of decrepitude, and wearing a beaver hat on his drooping head.
Eastman Johnson (1824–1906)
Captain Nathan H. Manter (1818–1897), dated, November 1873
Oil on paper board, 12¾ x 8⅝ inches
Gift of Alexandria and Michael N. Altman with love for Eliza Pickering, Nicholas James, and Jack Asher Altman (2011.16.1)

Nathan H. Manter was the beloved captain of the Nantucket steamboat Island Home from 1860 to 1891, and was one of the retired mariners whom Eastman Johnson befriended and painted repeatedly in his Nantucket scenes, including The Peddler. Born on Nantucket, he went to sea at the age of seventeen on the Nantucket whaleship Congress (1835–1838), and later commanded the Nantucket whaling schooner William P. Dolliver (1854). During his service as mate of the 1848–1852 cruise of the New Bedford ship Java, he was mistakenly reported as killed by a whale. He retired from whaling and joined the Nantucket Steamboat Company as first officer of the steamer Massachusetts and subsequently as captain of the Telegraph during the laying of the cable from Cape Cod to Nantucket on April 19, 1856. He soon took command of the steamship Island Home, aboard which he would serve for the remainder of his career, with a remarkable record of safety, retiring in 1891. He claimed to have rounded Brant Point “40,000 times” in his lifetime. Manter resided on Federal Street, and is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery.
Eastman Johnson (1824−1906)
The Peddler, 1873
Oil on board, 18 x 22½ inches
Courtesy, private collection

Johnson depicts a traveling peddler (a likeness of one of his frequent sitters, the retired Captain Nathan Manter) selling his wares to a young woman in a Nantucket interior— complete with a pot-bellied stove and a Nantucket Windsor chair. A young woman stands and examines a set of hairpins, while other salable wares rest on a smaller chair nearby. The peddler, with a dog and a covered Nantucket basket at his feet and set off by his stately silk top hat, is perfectly at ease in the comfortable chair. Johnson has imagined a vintage Nantucket scene in which the Windsor chair is nearly as much a character as the human shape it supports so effortlessly.

Eastman Johnson (1824−1906)
The Falling Market, 1873
Oil on canvas, 17 x 12 inches
Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association (2001.14.1)

Eastman Johnson painted this scene at the old Round-Top Mill—once situated on high ground off New Lane near the Old North Cemetery—in 1873, the year of the mill’s dismantling. Built in 1802 by Joseph Chase (1752–1833), the Round-Top Mill (also known as “Joe Chase’s Mill”) was the last mill to be constructed on Nantucket. Johnson portrays the mill’s interior, focusing on the forlorn gaze of the miller, with details such as the hopper just behind him with a sagging, half-empty bag attached, several other sacks lumped haphazardly around, and the visible gears and levers of the mill. The scene perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of the faltering island economy in the early 1870s. The millstones of the Round-Top Mill were used in the base of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Upper Main Street, erected in the same year.
Eastman Johnson (1824–1906)
Solitaire, 1867
Oil on canvas, 8 x 6¼ inches
Courtesy, private collection

Painted two years prior to the artist’s first visit to Nantucket, this lovely study of a young boy sitting by the fire and eating from a bowl shows Johnson’s interest in the textures of old interiors, such as the soft green paint of the fireplace surround set against the brick. He would use these effects with great success in larger interior scenes such as The Peddler.
William Trost Richards (1833−1905)
Nantucket Beach with Sankaty Lighthouse, 1865
Pencil on gray paper, 4½ x 9¾ inches
NHA purchase (2002.17.1)

A native of Philadelphia, William Trost Richards studied in Europe and became best known for his seascapes of the New England coast. Beginning in the 1860s, Richards specialized in New England shoreline scenes with an emphasis on the effects of light and atmosphere, and with special attention to the shapes and movement of waves. This study dates from a July 1865 visit Trost Richards made to Nantucket, and foreshadows his larger oil canvas of Sankaty Head Lighthouse, Lighthouse on Cape Cod [sic] (1865). Another study in the exhibition was used as a basis of his 1866 oil painting Nantucket Bluffs.

George Inness (1825–1894)
Back of Nichols’ Barn, ’Sconset, 1883
Oil on board, 22 x 27 inches
Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association with additional support from the Max and Heidi Berry Acquisition Fund and the NHA Acquisition Fund (2011.16.1)
American landscape painter George Inness visited Nantucket first in 1879 and returned on several occasions, passing the summer of 1883 in the village of ’Sconset. In the 1870s and 1880s, Inness’ style had evolved from a more traditional practice, often associated with the Hudson River School, to his increasingly visionary and mystical experiments with art as a means to access the divine “efflux” emanating from the natural world and to “awaken emotion.” While the “visionary mode” of Inness’ later style coincided with the period of his Nantucket paintings, Back of Nichols’ Barn, ’Sconset does not fully embrace the mystical “colorism” of this mode. Rather, it presents a charming rural scene of sheep wandering through a broken fence in a ramshackle farmyard in ’Sconset, past a group of whale-oil casks that have been converted for use as water barrels. The grouping of casks, barely held together by their loose iron hoops, are relics of Nantucket’s bygone whaling days that littered the island and were used for water storage in ’Sconset. The barn belonged to Maria and George W. Nichols, summer residents from Cincinnati who owned the property just off Morey Lane. Inness describes the oil-on-board painting in a letter to his wife, Lizzie, on August 4, 1883: “I have had a great success with another painted out of doors back of Nichols’ barn—some sheep coming through a gateway. For that I have used one of the large mill boards, so that although I stroll about and work at intervals only, there has been considerable work done.”

John Alexander MacDougall Jr. (1843–1924)
Sunset, 1901
Pastel on paper, 15 x 18 inches
Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association (2007.29.1–2)

John A. MacDougall Jr. summered on Nantucket in the 1890s and moved there full time in 1908. He was a close friend and student of Eastman Johnson. He stayed at 42 North Street (Cliff Road), known as “The Studio,” near Johnson’s house and studio at 41 North Street. MacDougall studied at the National Academy of Design, and exhibited at the Boston Art Club and the Pennsylvania Academy. He came from a family of artists that included John MacDougall Sr. and Bruce MacDougall, and was noted for his miniatures and pastels. In his pastel, Sunset, MacDougall captures the heart of a Nantucket sunset on the island’s south shore, with its crashing surf and “rooster-tail waves,” a few scattered pieces of driftwood or wreckage, and the vibrant but fading remains of the late afternoon sun.

William Ferdinand Macy (1852–1902)
Nantucket Dunes, 1897
Oil on canvas, 10½ x 16½ inches
Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association (1999.4.1)
William Ferdinand Macy was a New Bedford-born artist who was a descendant
of early Nantucket settler and original proprietor Thomas Macy. He studied in New York City at the Cooper Union Art School under the tutelage of New Bedford artist
R. Swain Gifford (1840–1905) and others. Macy enjoyed success on Nantucket with
his marine scenes and flower paintings. Nantucket Dunes was composed in the decade before his death. It displays looser, almost abstract brushwork, with soft beige sand tones and a vivid orange sunset.

Eastman Johnson and His Contemporaries is on display at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whitney Gallery at the Fair Street Research Library,
7 Fair Street, Nantucket, Massachusetts, through the end of 2012.
For more information, visit, or call (508) 228-1894 x 0.

Benjamin Simons is the Robyn & John Davis Chief Curator, Nantucket Historical Association.