In painting "The Field Hospital," Eastman Johnson honored the work performed by women and the United States Sanitary Commission in Union camps and hospitals during the Civil War. Johnson, one of the leading American genre painters of the nineteenth century, often commented on contemporary life...
In painting "The Field Hospital," Eastman Johnson honored the work performed by women and the United States Sanitary Commission in Union camps and hospitals during the Civil War. Johnson, one of the leading American genre painters of the nineteenth century, often commented on contemporary life through his pictures. During the Civil War, he chose themes that resonated with citizens on the home front, such as "Writing to Father" [64.435], or to soldiers at the front, like "The Wounded Drummer Boy" (Union League Club, New York, 1871, based on an 1863 drawing). Johnson made several trips to Union lines to gather material for his pictures. In 1862, he witnessed the Battles of Bull Run and Antietam, and after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, he marched with Union soldiers through Maryland. As a result of Bull Run, Johnson painted "A Ride for Liberty-The Fugitive Slaves" (Brooklyn Museum of Art). "The Field Hospital" was apparently inspired by his contact with the Union army following Gettysburg (see Patricia Hills, "Eastman Johnson's 'The Field Hospital,' the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and Women in the Civil War," The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, vo. 65, 1981-82, p. 70). In a bucolic glade, an injured soldier dictates a letter to a woman. Both figures are silhouetted against a sunny spot in the clearing. Nearby are objects used in caring for patients -a basin for bathing and a corked bottle, probably containing some cleansing liquid. The pastoral setting, the woman's attentive care, and the dappled sunshine impart a healthful and optimistic air to the painting. Inscribed on the packing case upon which the woman sits is U. S. / SANITAR[Y] / COM[MISSION]. The U. S. Sanitary Commission was established in 1861 as an official agency of the United States government to organize the volunteer work of women in the Union war effort. Founded by the Women's Central Relief Association and a group of influential New York men, including the Reverend Henry W. Bellows, the U. S. Sanitary Commission supplemented the Union army's hospitals, nursing staffs, and ambulances; gathered casualty statistics; knitted socks and gloves; sewed blankets and uniforms; and raised funds to support the Federal army (in total, 25 million dollars were raised). The contribution of women to the war effort both at home and at the front was a popular subject for illustrations in magazines, works of art, and published accounts. A wood engraving entitled "Our Women and the War" appeared in "Harper's Weekly" in September 1862. The following year, Winslow Homer, whose career often paralleled Johnson's, drew "The Letter for Home" [63.382], which was lithographed as part of his "Campaign Sketches" portfolio; it may have served as a source for "The Field Hospital." Louisa May Alcott described her experiences working in a hospital near Fredericksburg in 1863, and Frank Moore published his "Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice" in 1866. Thus, although the war was over, the subject was still popular when Johnson painted "The Field Hospital" in 1867. In 1868, "The Field Hospital," by then owned by George H. Purser, a New York City lawyer, was exhibited at the National Academy of Design, where it received favorable notice. The critic for the "New York Times" found the painting "meritorious" and declared that "Mr. Johnson avoids the common error of harrowing up the feelings by mere ghastliness. The good-looking lad, with his honest sun-burnt face and still expression, excites the sympathy of the beholder from the sheer reality of his misfortune" (quoted in Hills, p. 73). Two years later, Henry T. Tuckerman, a leading contemporary art critic, wrote: "More pathetic [than "The Drummer Boy"], but equally true to life and nature, is another illustration of the War for the Union: In the foreground of the picture, under the cool shadow of the trees, lies upon a camp-cot a young soldier. He appears to be convalescent, and his face is turned toward a young woman, who is seated by his side, writing a letter at his dictation. In the distance are hospital tents, and a guard pacing his beat in the golden sunshine." Tuckerman went on to quote an unnamed critic who wrote: "This is a simple yet touching story, which recalls the loving work so often done by noble women in the camp and in the hospital, and it is told with…eloquence of color and perfection of design" (Henry T. Tuckerman, "Book of Artists," New York: G. P. Putnam & Son, 1870, pp. 468-69). Johnson made a fine drawing in charcoal and graphite after "The Field Hospital," although he eliminated the inscription mentioning the U. S. Sanitary Commission (Minneapolis Institute of Arts). This drawing served as a basis for an engraving published by Louis Prang in 1870 under the title "Our Women Warriors." The U. S. Sanitary Commission was disbanded in 1866, but the tireless work of women in the Union war effort would long be remembered, due in part to images like Johnson's "The Field Hospital." Janet Comey
Lower left: E. Johnson/1867 on packing case at right: U. S. / SANITAR[Y] / COM[MISSION]
Signed I.I. E. Johnson/1867
The artist; George H. Purser, New York, 1868; to Mrs. Ernest Pope, Atlanta, Georgia; with Vose Galleries, Boston, 1946; to Maxim Karolik, 1946; to MFA, 1948, gift of Maxim Karolik.
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865