Today we examine another work by Eastman Johnson. This rendition of “The Early Scholar,” likely Johnson’s initial oil sketch, is one of at least three versions of the composition.
What do you notice first when looking at this picture? The dark stove, its pipe, and the dull corner of the blackboard form a stark, two-dimensional, geometric motif that collapses the space of the left side of the scene. In contrast, the stepped series of student desks extends the right portion of the painting into an ambiguous distance. Pentimenti above and to the left of the benches—visible traces of previous work on the canvas—indicate that Johnson experimented with the compositional balance that the grouping provides.
In the center foreground is the young boy, the profile of his round face lost to the shadows. Far more suggestive is the long curve of his back as his body strains to fold inward—his feet raised and his pants pulling at the knee—in an effort to move his extremities as close to the stove as possible. What else does this boy’s position tell you about life as a young student in the 19th-century? #Youth #ArtAtoZ
Eastman Johnson, “The Early Scholar,” c. 1865, oil on academy board on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.157