Eastman Johnson’s Kite Flying

A recent, observed moment on a battlefield involving kite flying evoked a momentarily feeling of frustration at the frivolity followed by a shrug and the thought “well, maybe Civil War soldiers flew kites with their children or little siblings.” Maybe they wouldn’t mind seeing a kite soaring over the places where their battle lines once were because that means that families do something fun…in safety.

The kite flying has stuck in my mind, but not in a bad way. A fiction story might be slowly spinning itself, but nonfiction belongs here. Searching for “Civil War and kites” turns up an interesting array of old-fashion notes about kites and that they been around for centuries. There must be a fantastic account somewhere of soldiers building a kite, a general taking flight, or something! But…not finding a particularly compelling story to research at the time of my “sources survey”, I tried mid-19th century art.

“Kite Flying” by Eastman Johnson, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine, The Lunder Collection (2013.160)

Eastman Johnson created this oil painting sometime in the late 1870s. Some of his more famous art pieces include Civil War scenes, like Ride for Freedom and The Field Hospital. At first glance, there’s nothing “Civil War” about this painting which is titled Kite Flying. Rather, the description of this painting from when it was auctioned in 1907 reads:

“On the sloping summit of a high grassy bank sits a nurse engaged in knitting, while a little girl standing beside her is amusing herself holding the cord of a kite. Both figures are in a strong effect of sunlight, which brings them into vigorous relief against a quiet summer sky, across which drifts a thin veil of vapor. Near the group a broken kite lies in the grass, and below the bank, on the left, is suggested a meadow with a narrow stream of water and a tree-surrounded country residence, from the tower of which floats the Stars and Stripes.”[i]

I can’t prove that Johnson had some underlying war themes in mind when he created this. He probably didn’t. But after hiking a battlefield, thinking about 19th Century kite flying, and then seeing this painting, a few thoughts of war and homefront came to mind.

The young girl gazes upward. She is intent, hopeful, and the light falls easily across her face. The girl’s kite is not seen. It’s out of the painting, and just her posture and the faintly seen cord in her hands suggests what she is doing. The older female figure — perhaps a working class mother or more likely a nurse or maid watching the little girl —adds a steadiness to the flighty scene; she keeps her eyes on her work, on the reality. There’s a kite lying on the ground — perhaps broken, perhaps abandoned by someone else, or maybe just a clue to the girl’s activity. The flag in the background is nearly invisible, but there to signal that this scene is in the United States.

Kite Flying made me stop and think about the fatherless children from the Civil War. How many little ones never knew their dads? Or could just vaguely remember him from a short furlough? Were forever wondering if he would come home to play with them because the adults just knew he was missing? What if the kite on the ground is broken? Symbolizing something lost or unfinished? The little girl in this painting is on her own. Sure, her mother or a maid is with her, but no children or adults are playing with her. Her attitude does not seem bothered by this, rather she stands solidly. Facing the sky, facing the future.

Johnson shows us a scene with a United States flag flying, a broken kite, an invisible kite, and a woman and a child at the center of the story. Something feels missing, but yet there is a sense of determination and knowledge that “this is the way it will be.” The woman quietly resigned to the scene. The girl looking ahead. Is it just a peaceful scene? Or is this image encompassing stories and realities that Johnson might have seen women and children living through in the after-years of war. The missing, the surviving, the fatherless child, and yet the looking to the future?

(Johnson also did this “study” of the scene which is called On The Hillside. The flag is more visible.)

“On The Hillside” by Eastman Johnson


[i] See this website for more details about the piece of art and its history and sales: https://www.eastmanjohnson.org/catalogue/entry.php?id=402

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