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Background Essay on Eastman Johnson and A Ride for Liberty

This essay describes the circumsances surrounding one of Eastman Johnson's most famous paintings, A Ride for Liberty–The Fugitive Slaves.

Eastman Johnson was born in Maine in 1824 and learned to paint in Holland in the 1850s. Many of the scenes he painted were of contemporary life in America. His paintings from the 1860s confronted some of the most pressing issues of the moment: slavery, abolition, emancipation, the Civil War homefront, and Reconstruction. In 1862, with many African Americans making their way to freedom behind Union lines, Eastman Johnson made trips to Union encampments to witness and sketch the war's events. Johnson's few surviving depictions of actual episodes from the Civil War include his painting A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves. On the back of one version of this composition is inscribed, “A veritable incident in the civil war seen by myself at Centerville, on the morning of McClellan’s advance towards Manassas, March 2nd, 1862.” (Manassas Virginia, was a Confederate stronghold until this moment, when simultaneous defeats in Kentucky and Tennessee forced southern troops to begin a voluntary retreat.) By allowing his experience of real events to shape the painting, Johnson created a profound image in which an African-American family was the agent of its own freedom. The central subject of the painting is a group of four people on horseback: a man holding a small boy face forward and a woman clutching a baby who looks back over her shoulder. The relationship among the riders is left for the viewer to interpret.

(Adapted from Brooklyn Museum of Art publication, Eastman Johnson: Painting America A Guide to the Civil War Era Paintings and American Social History Project text book Who Built America? Vol. I.)

Source | Adapted from Teresa Carbone and Patricia Hill, Eastman Johnson: Painting America A Guide to the Civil War Era Paintings, (New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1999) and American Social History Project, Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's History, (New York: Bedford St.Martin's, 2008).
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Eastman Johnson and A Ride for Liberty,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/530.

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