Civil War History & The Dallas Museum of Art: Five Boys on a Wall

Eastman Johnson is one of my favorite American 19th Century artists, and I was thrilled to see that the Dallas Museum of Art had one of his works.

“Five Boys on a Wall” was created in the 1870’s and shows youngsters in various poses, but looking as if they have just been called since they all gaze in the same direction. How is there a Civil War connection to this art? Perhaps the ties to the war are not strong within the actual painting, but the artist had a connection to the war.

Born in 1824, Eastman Johnson grew up in Maine and was apprenticed to an illustration printer in Boston, Massachusetts. He later followed his family to Washington City and started sketching famous people and political leaders of the era. In 1849, Johnson travelled to Germany and studied art as part of the Düsseldorf school of painting. Later, he moved to The Hague in the Netherlands to continue his training and building his artistic kills. Johnson returned to the United States in 1855 and traveled west to spend some time in Wisconsin where he lived with Native American tribes and painted scenes from their culture. Two years later, he moved to New York City, established a studio, and was nationally recognized for his paintings.

Eastman Johnson, self portrait from 1863

During the Civil War years, Johnson did not spend extended time with armies in the field, either as soldier or artist. He did make a couple of trips to the military scene, including observing the First Battle of Bull Run which inspired his painting A Ride for Liberty. Known for typically paining “everyday” scenes, Johnson’s art during the 1860’s was inspired by the war. He frequently painted scenes with African American men, women, or children to support abolition and equality. In New York City, Johnson joined the Union League Club which eventually became the owner or displayer of many of his paintings.

His painting “Five Boys on a Wall” was created during the 1870’s and is believed to have been inspired by a summer trip to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. In many of his Nantucket paintings, Johnson experimented with light on the canvas, adding new elements to his art.

As I looked at the details and composition of the painting, I wondered about the boys. Could they have been the sons of Civil War soldiers? Had they ever known their fathers or had they not come home from the battlefields? I did not interpret the painting as a sad image, just a moment of pause in boys’ games, stories, and loud laughter. As if someone had called to them or something had caught their undivided attention for a moment.

Perhaps they can be seen to represent the future beyond the Civil War. The boys of the rising generation who likely had been born after the conflict years, but who would grow up hearing the stories, visiting the churchyard graves of an uncle or other family member they never really knew, and asking questions about the war and its politics. They were part of the future in the North in a united country that years earlier soldiers had enlisted from Nantucket to defend…

1 Response to Civil War History & The Dallas Museum of Art: Five Boys on a Wall

  1. As always, you give us a useful perspective. We don’t spend so much time as Civil War scholars thinking about the Union North during the era of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. It’s useful to be reminded. And nothing helps remind us better than art. I co-authored a book, Freedom’s Price, about Dred Scott’s wife and daughters in Saint Louis in 1849 with “A Ride to Freedom” on the wall in front of me. That was what Dred’s wife Harriet was fighting for so hard — freedom for her daughters, her husband, and herself — in that order. Dred might have gotten along with slavery. But Harriet wasn’t having it as the future for her girls, even if her adversary was the privileged daughter of the richest man in Saint Louis.And despite what we read in Taney’s 1857 Supreme Court decision and the history books, Harriet won. The Scott family achieved freedom before the Civil War.

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