Intern Insights

Eastman Johnson's The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp

Each summer, a select group of Colby students participate in the Museum’s rigorous ten-week internship program. Interns immerse themselves in the life of the Museum, engaging in weekly staff meetings, making vital contributions to their assigned departments, and participating in a series of professional development workshops. In this post, Mellon Program Research Assistant Katie Ryan ’18 shares an excerpt of her research on the Museum’s The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp by Eastman Johnson, which she presented at the Colby Summer Undergraduate Research Retreat.

Party in the Maple Sugar Camp
Eastman Johnson, The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp, c. 1861-1866. Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 in. x 40 1/4 in. (76.84 cm x 102.24 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2013.159

Eastman Johnson’s painting The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp is an oil sketch depicting a celebration in the woods of Fryeburg, Maine. This celebration was referred to as “sugaring off” and occurred when the first sap was boiled into maple sugar toward the end of winter and the beginning of spring, symbolizing “regeneration and renewal.”[1]

Large multifigure compositions that display community and festivity, such as The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp, had been a theme throughout Johnson’s education. He spent time in Europe from 1849 to 1855, studying in Dusseldorf, The Hague, and Paris, and became an extremely talented genre painter.[2] Genre paintings depict scenes of everyday life and of comfortable domesticity that display sentimentality and intimacy. Johnson excelled in this category; he created paintings that grew to surpass this definition.

In The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp, a group of about twenty people are in the left half of the composition, many of them sitting upon a pile of wood creating a vertical as well as horizontal figural arrangement. There is a clear interrelation of the figures in the painting as they talk and dance across the clearing in the forest. In the background, a small sugar shack with a kettle out in front of it is accompanied by a kettle tender. The background of the painting, the forest, is foggy and muted in comparison to the more lively warm hues in the foreground.

The artwork is painted with broad brushstrokes, lacking detail, and experimental and impressionistic in nature. One of twenty-five similarly experimental and preliminary oil sketches, the painting was created by Johnson in preparation for a project centered on depicting a Maine maple sugar scene.[3] Many of these sketches repeat characters and compositions, the similarities between them emphasizing the experimental nature of Johnson’s process. Twenty-five sketches for one work is considerable, and it seems Johnson worked on this project throughout much of the Civil War, a fairly long stretch of time.

But why? What was the significance of this particular scene, and why was he fascinated with it? The words of Johnson himself in a letter to his friend and patron John F. Coyle in 1864 are the key in beginning to answer these questions:

I hope in the next year to do something more considerable than I have yet done, to paint two or three larger & more pretenscious [sic] pictures, which are in fact all well under way. In furtherance of one of these I am about starting for the country to make studies for a month or six weeks. This will be my fourth annual trip for the same purpose to the wilds of the State of Main­e––The scene is a down-east Sugaring, a picturesque & in one way interesting one, partly perhaps on account of its being associated with my pleasantest early recollections. The operation takes place at a rustic camp in the woods, out of doors, in the early spring, while the snow is yet deep. There will be forty figures or more, the occasion an entirely social one, even jolly, & very well adapted as I think to exhibit character & picturesque combination of form color & c. At all events I am very much interested in the subject . . . not yet begun the picture nor indeed got nearly all the materials.[4]

The letter indicates that Johnson had great expectations for this project and had clearly identified his goals for the final composition. He signifies that Maine was a location he wished to return to and paint because of his fond memories there and because it was a place he considered home. His utilization of the words “picturesque” and “jolly,” along with his identification of the subject matter as “associated with [his] pleasantest early recollections,” displays the sentimentality of this subject matter.[5] It appears that the scene was largely intended to be a celebratory display of community.

The Wounded Scout
John Rogers , The Wounded Scout: A Friend in the Swamp, 1864. Bronze, 22 3/4 in. x 11 in. x 8 3/4 in. (57.79 cm x 27.94 cm x 22.23 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2011.109

Additionally, this painting occupies an interesting status between wartime and postwar subject matter. During the Civil War, art that asserted patriotic values was most popular, but after the war, patrons looked for “tension-free nostalgia” in artwork.[6] An artwork that exhibits typical wartime subject matter from the Colby Museum’s collection is The Wounded Scout: A Friend in the Swamp by John Rogers. This bronze sculpture depicts a wounded Union soldier leaning and relying on a black man, likely an escaped slave, for help. The artist’s patriotism and support of the Union are overt in this sculpture. The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp doesn’t quite fit into either category; it doesn’t capture the prevailing subject matter of either wartime or postwar. The painting is often considered to be subtly political because of the consideration of maple sugar as a moral sweetener at the time, an alternative to slave-produced cane sugar. However, Johnson’s letter from 1864 indicates that his personal relationship to the maple sugar camps of Maine is of primary importance to him, calling into question whether or not he intended for the painting to have political implications.[7]

This project was never finished. All twenty-five drafts were discovered in Johnson’s studio after he died and some speculate that his lack of a patron for the project prevented him from finishing it[8]. The Party in the Maple Sugar Camp is fascinating because it represents a work that never was, a project Eastman Johnson had great ambitions for that never came to fruition. In this painting, Johnson brings his local, national, and international perspectives together seamlessly and provides the viewer with a unique glimpse at his influences. One is left to speculate what Johnson envisioned all along for the final “more pretenscious picture” and what this final sugaring scene would’ve looked like.[9]

[1] Brian T. Allen, Sugaring Off: The Maple Sugar Paintings of Eastman Johnson (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2004), 39.

[2] Teresa A. Carbone and Patricia Hills, Eastman Johnson: Painting America (New York: Brooklyn Museum of Art, in Association with Rizzoli International Publications, 1999), 15–23.

[3] Allen, Sugaring Off: The Maple Sugar Paintings of Eastman Johnson, 9.

[4] Carbone and Hills, Eastman Johnson: Painting America, 245.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Allen, Sugaring Off: The Maple Sugar Paintings of Eastman Johnson, 51.

[7] The politics and status of maple sugar are explored in the following sources: Allen, Sugaring Off: The Maple Sugar Paintings of Eastman Johnson, 39; Mary Miley Theobald, “Thomas Jefferson and the Maple Sugar Scheme” [The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; Carbone and Hills, Eastman Johnson: Painting America, 245.

[8] Allen, Sugaring Off: The Maple Sugar Paintings of Eastman Johnson, 10.

[9] Carbone and Hills, Eastman Johnson: Painting America, 245.