The Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, 9th Floor New York City, NY 10022 , United States Call Seller 212.535.8810


Figure in a Landscape

Price Upon Request
  • Description
    Landscape painter David Johnson was a stalwart of the New York art world in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the fifty years between 1849 and 1899, Johnson exhibited over fifty paintings at the National Academy of Design, where he was an academician. His decade of greatest activity was the 1870s, with exhibition participation becoming sporadic after 1880. In 1874, he served as a member of the powerful hanging committee for N.A.D.’s annual exhibition. In 1861, Johnson served as a founding member of the Artists’ Fund Society, a benevolent association that raised money through the sale of donated works to support indigent artists and their families. Johnson exhibited three paintings at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, with one winning an award. The following year he was also a prize winner at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association. Johnson exhibited a painting at the Paris Salon in 1877, listing his address as Goupil and Son, the prominent Parisian art dealers. Johnson also maintained a major presence at the exhibitions of the Brooklyn Art Association, showing works that were already in private collections as well as works for sale. Though primarily located in New York, he also exhibited in 1858, 1861 and 1867 at the Boston Athenaeum, and in 1850 and 1862 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia.

    While Johnson, the artist, has left a rich legacy of evocative nineteenth-century landscapes, Johnson, the man, has left little historical footprint to identify his comings and goings or document his life. The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, published in 1904, included a brief biographical entry on Johnson, with information presumably informed or at least approved, by the artist himself, telling the public as much he wished anyone to know. After his death in 1908, Johnson and his work fell into the obscurity that shrouded most of nineteenth-century American landscape art. In 1917, The Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Bryson Burroughs identified Johnson as a member of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. Though Burroughs attempted to revive the historical reputation of the Hudson River School, it did not attract major attention until after World War II. Johnson was not among the first to be reexamined. It remained for John I. H. Baur, a former curator of the Brooklyn Museum and Director Emeritus at the Whitney Museum of Art, to resurrect Johnson in a 1980 article published in The American Art Journal, “‘. . . the exact brushwork of Mr. David Johnson,’ An American Landscape Painter, 1827–1908.” Baur located Johnson as a Pre-Raphaelite and luminist, while also acknowledging Barbizon influences in his work. These were labels calculated to generate more than passing interest in the artist to a generation in the midst of a rediscovery of nineteenth-century American art and artists.

    Baur’s pioneering work heralded a decade of Johnson scholarship. Johnson was included in Linda S. Ferber and William H. Gerdts, The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites, exhib. cat. [(New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 1985), p. 270], and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School, exhib. cat. (1987), pp. 269–76. Also in 1978, Baur and Margaret C. Conrads curated an exhibition at the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York, Meditations on Nature: The Drawings of David Johnson. The most comprehensive treatment of Johnson remains Gwendolyn Owens, Nature Transcribed: The Landscapes and Still Lifes of David Johnson (1827–1908), exhib. cat. (Ithaca, New York: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 1988–89). Most recent is the biographical entry written by John Davis in David Dearinger, ed. Painting and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, 2004, pp. 322–23.)

    Through all these accounts, a few details have been added to the basic outline of Johnson’s life as it was published in 1904. Born in New York City to David and Eliza Johnson, his father was a builder of mail coaches. Johnson attended public schools and had minimal art training. According to the archives at the National Academy of Design, Johnson registered in the Antique Class there in 1845 and 1846. Johnson began his professional career in 1849, categorized by the company he kept and choice of subject matter and style as a second generation Hudson River School painter. In 1849, he sketched in the Catskill Mountains with fellow New York artists John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872) and John William Casilear (1811–1893). He exhibited in New York in 1849, both at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design and with its rival, the American Art-Union. In 1850, Johnson studied briefly with Jasper Francis Cropsey. It is said that studied with his older brother, Joseph Hoffman Johnson (1821–1890), a portrait painter about whom even less is known than about his younger brother. Joseph Johnson was the maker of the portrait that David Johnson contributed as his required image for associate status at the National Academy of Design in 1860.

    By his own account, in 1869, David Johnson married Maria Louise West. The couple lived at various locations in Manhattan, generally moving uptown, and last living on West 131st Street in the Manhattanville neighborhood, until they left for Walden, New York in 1904. Johnson likely had longstanding ties with Walden, a Hudson River Valley community in Orange County, north of New York City. For over twenty years, Johnson maintained a studio in the YMCA building on East 23rd Street, a location popular with artists not least for its strategic location across the street from the headquarters of the National Academy of Design.

    Johnson’s early work reflected the growth of an American school of art, dedicated to the proposition that American scenery was a suitable subject for a national art. In summer these artists traveled, often in groups, to scenic locations where they created a body of drawings and oil sketches to turn into fully realized paintings in their winter studios. The accurate portrayal of flora, rocks, and water was a point of pride. In the period after the Civil War Johnson selectively incorporated influences from the Barbizon school of French landscape painting, moving back and forth between his earlier precise descriptions of nature and moodier, but evocative renditions of American northeastern scenery.

    The question as to whether Johnson ever traveled to Europe remains undecided. While such travel was common enough among Johnson’s coterie of friends and colleagues, there is no proof that he ever went. A letter of 1924 from a representative of his widow to an officer of the National Academy of Design asked for aid in selling some French canvases that Johnson owned and was said to have acquired in Europe. Barbizon paintings, however, were available in New York. Johnson did exhibit once at the Paris Salon, in 1877. Was he in Europe then?

    There is also speculation as to whether Johnson ever visited the American West, another favorite journey for landscape artists. A few scenes that have been tentatively identified as Western, may however, have been painted from photographic originals, a practice we know that Johnson engaged in with respect to portraiture. Curiously, there is no record of what Johnson did during the Civil War. He would have been in his mid thirties when the war began, not prime military age, but not too old to serve. The war years remain undocumented.

    Johnson enjoyed his greatest success in the 1860s and 1870s, when he was particularly well-known for his precise, detailed depiction of rocks and trees rendered in a Pre-Raphaelite manner. His highly skilled draftsmanship is reflected in the present work, one of a group of landscapes and finished nature studies that Johnson executed in the mid-1860s. This picture, from 1865, is a reminder of Johnson’s affinity for the truth-to-nature approach of the Pre-Raphaelites and recalls, as well, his identification with luminism. The artist paints the tree and foreground elements in precise detail, but softens the appearance through a clear and tranquil light that envelopes the entire scene, offering each detail as part of nature’s grand composition.
  • More Information
    Documentation: Signed
    Origin: United States
    Period: 19th Century
    Materials: Oil on board
    Condition: Good.
    Creation Date: 1865
    Styles / Movements: Realism, Other
    Dealer Reference #: APG 8797.001
    Incollect Reference #: 280515
  • Dimensions
    W. 8.5 in; H. 5.5 in;
    W. 21.59 cm; H. 13.97 cm;
Message from Seller:

The gallery continues to specialize in American and European paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sculpture from the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries; American prints of all periods; and American decorative arts from 1810 to 1910. Its contemporary arm, Hirschl & Adler Modern, has developed a select group of established and emerging realist artists and also features American and European art from the Post-War period.

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