Eastman Johnson was a portraiture painter who, during the Civil War, set out to “save the soul of America” with his paintings. Born in 1824 in Maine, he began his career by painting portraits of important figure heads in the Union. He traveled to Germany to study art at the Düsseldorf Academy, and came back to the US when the war broke out.
During this tumultuous time, Johnson’s paintings revolved around what were considered “touchy” subjects at the time: slavery, abolitionists, and suffering caused by the war. He felt the need to spread awareness of the root of the war through his paintings, and he did just that. Over the course of his career, Johnson portrayed the unthinkable: slaves reading books, slaves being liberated, a black family singing and enjoying life, black men reading the Bible- all in an attempt to break social codes and call attention to the inhumanity of depicting slaves as subhuman and highlighting the need for equality.
It was through these paintings (that were exhibited around the country) that the idea of slaves and African Americans being equivalent was planted in the minds of countless citizens, and over the course of the war, became the sole issue dividing the North and the South and the reason behind fighting: to end slavery once and for all.