The Story in Paintings: Eastman Johnson sugaring off

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), At the Camp: Spinning Yarns and Whittling (c 1861-65), oil on paperboard, 48.3 x 58.4 cm, Crystal Bridges Art Museum, Bentonville, AR. The Athenaeum.

We have seen examples before of painted narratives which, at the time, were easily read, but which have since become obscure and sometimes even lost. This one is unusually complex, because of the different levels at which it can be read. Although very American paintings dealing with very American issues, I suspect that most modern Americans would struggle to read them, and most non-Americans would be completely baffled.

This is made all the more complex because the artist, Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), never painted his final version, and only left us with a series of studies and sketches.

Johnson is a major figure in nineteenth-century American art, not only as one of its most important painters, but as co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City – one of the major art galleries and collections in the world.

Born and brought up in Maine, he was apprenticed to a Boston lithographer in 1840, then the family moved to Washington, DC. Eastman Johnson moved back to Boston, then in 1849 went to Düsseldorf, Germany, to study painting. From there he went to The Hague, in the Netherlands, and finished up in Paris, as a pupil of Thomas Couture, in 1855.

During 1856-57, he travelled and painted Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) in Superior, Wisconsin. By 1859, he was established in his own studio in New York City, and painting genre scenes, including the very successful Negro Life at the South (1859), which was set in the urban areas of Washington, DC, and was exhibited at the National Academy of Design. For much of his career he was a successful and sought-after portraitist, but had a particular penchant for painting narrative genre scenes on contemporary themes. I provide a couple of relevant examples.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880 (1880), oil on canvas, 69.5 × 138.7 cm, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

His The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket, 1880 (1880) is a gloriously detailed account of the intensely manual harvesting of cranberries, a very traditional farming activity which kept many communities in the north-east alive. It has parallels in European paintings of agricultural labour, including those of Millet, but does not attempt to glamourise or dramatise in any way. And in the distance are harbingers of social change, in the form of smoking chimneys, and towns.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), Not at Home (c 1873), oil on laminated paperboard, 67.1 x 56.7 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

His earlier Not at Home (c 1873) is almost enigmatic enough to qualify as a ‘problem picture’ in British Victorian style. Without those three words of the title, all you see is a well-lit and empty parlour, and the presumed mistress of the house starting up the stairs, in relative gloom in the foreground.

Those three words, of course, are the classic excuse offered in someone’s absence – “I am sorry, but the Mistress is not at home” – even when they are very much at home, but simply do not want to see the visitor(s). So the title tells us that the woman is ascending the stairs in order not to see visitor(s).

The problem is to decide who is visiting, and why the woman is so resolutely going upstairs, so that she is ‘not at home’.

The paintings

Earlier, during the American Civil War, Eastman Johnson started a major project intended to result in his most important painting to date. Although he continued to work on sketches and studies through that war, and for a few years afterwards, that finished and most important painting was never completed. We therefore have a choice of three (and more) advanced studies which should give an idea of what he was intending.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), Sugaring Off at the Camp, Fryeburg, Maine (c 1864-66), oil on canvas, 50.2 x 86.4 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Sugaring Off at the Camp, Fryeburg, Maine (c 1864-66) shows some sort of festivities being held deep in a forest in winter, centred on a group who are warming themselves over a large cauldron or ‘kettle’, which is heating on an open fire.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), A Different Sugaring Off (c 1865), oil on canvas, 42.9 x 81.3 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

A Different Sugaring Off (c 1865) shows a similar scene, with the same basic pictorial elements.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), The Maple Sugar Camp: Turning Off (1865-1873), oil on panel, 25.7 × 57.4 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

The Maple Sugar Camp: Turning Off (1865-73) is another rearrangement, this time featuring a little rustic dancing too.

Other paintings by Johnson work through detailed sub-scenes from this grand work.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), At the Maple Sugar Camp (1870), oil on canvasboard, 31.1 x 38.7 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

At the Maple Sugar Camp (1870) shows a couple of lads playing cards by a large wooden barrel.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), At the Camp: Spinning Yarns and Whittling (c 1861-65), oil on paperboard, 48.3 x 58.4 cm, Crystal Bridges Art Museum, Bentonville, AR. The Athenaeum.

At the Camp: Spinning Yarns and Whittling (c 1861-65) is one of the most complete studies, showing two older men, one well-dressed and clearly a community father, sat on a saw-horse, the large kettle heating behind them.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), The Sugar Camp (Making Maple Sugar, or Susan Ray’s Maple Sugaring Kitchen) (c 1861-65), oil on paperboard, 35.6 x 58.4 cm, Yale University Art Gallery (gift of Teresa Heinz in memory of her husband H. John Heinz III, B.A. 1960), New Haven, CT. Courtesy of Yale University, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Sugar Camp (Making Maple Sugar, or Susan Ray’s Maple Sugaring Kitchen) (c 1861-65) shows a couple of the younger men, with the kettle at the left, and a barrel at the right.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), Sugar Camp (date not known), oil on board, 33 x 55.9 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

The undated Sugar Camp offers an alternative arrangement for the people around the kettle, this time with a finely-dressed woman stood by it.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), Tasting the Sugar (c 1870-73), oil on canvas, 43.2 x 53.3 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Tasting the Sugar (c 1870-73) takes a very different approach, and appears to be the kernel of a more modest event around the kettle, this time predominantly involving women.

The event

If you do not already know, or have deduced from the titles and content of Johnson’s paintings, he intended to show the production of maple sugar from the exuded sap of maple trees, in the forests of Maine and the northern part of New England. This traditionally took place somewhere towards the end of the winter and start of the spring, when the sap started to rise most strongly.

The sap, which drips from holes drilled through the bark of the tree, is collected in a bucket, which is then brought back to a camp for processing. There, the pooled sap is boiled down in a large kettle, as Johnson shows. At the sugaring-off, hot maple syrup is poured into the snow to create a waxy toffee/taffy, which is traditionally served with hot coffee, doughnuts, and sour pickles.

Philip John Bainbridge (1817-1881), Making Maple Sugar, Lower Canada (c 1837), watercolour over graphite with gum arabic on wove paper, 58.3 x 43 cm, Canadian Government Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Philip John Bainbridge’s more clinical watercolour of Making Maple Sugar, Lower Canada (c 1837) shows the processes involved even more clearly, as does the photo below showing a festival held in Connecticut in March, 2007.

Photograph of Maple Sugar Festival Weekend at Stamford Museum & Nature Center (2007), courtesy of Stamford Museum & Nature Center, Stamford, CT, via Wikimedia Commons.


At this time, in the late nineteenth century, the processes and events shown by Johnson were already antiquated, and to the city-dwellers of New York would have appeared a quaint reminder of a happier past. There was ample rather sugary sentiment on display here.

Sugaring off also fitted well in Johnson’s world view of traditional agriculture and wholesome society and culture. As he showed later in the harvesting of cranberries, the whole community came together to work for its common good: the sort of moralising which was popular at the time (and there’s nothing wrong with that either). This was all the more important at the time of the Civil War, and afterwards, when there was a lot of communal work to be done, and a lot of communal healing required too.

Maple sugar was also a very topical symbol. Produced by free workers in the north, it had been a mainstay, which remains even today a distinctive foodstuff, often something of a special treat. The urban populations of the US had switched, though, to everyday use of refined cane sugar, which was of southern origin, and still strongly associated with slavery. As an ardent Unionist, Johnson saw the maple versus cane conflict as a reflection of the Civil War itself, and of what he saw as its key issues.

The difficulty that Johnson faced was how to build that narrative into his final painting. Without clear clues to each level of reading, the viewer was left with something as sweet and pleasing as the maple sweets made when sugaring off, but also as ephemeral. Perhaps that is why he eventually abandoned the project.


Sugaring Off, exhibition of 2004, at the Internet Archive.