Eastman Johnson (American, 1824–1906)
oil on board
10 3/4 x 8 1/2 in. (27.31 x 21.59 cm)
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, Gift of Kathleen Hammer and Arthur Seelbinder and partial museum purchase with funds provided by gifts from Maureen and Roger Ackerman, Ryder Harwood Bishop, Angela R. Black, Mr. and Mrs. Wayne L. Burdick, Susan and Van Campbell, Ted Dintersmith and Elizabeth Hazard, Deborah C. and Neil G. Fisher, Laura D. and Stephen F. Gates, Paulo R. and Beth A. Geiss, Mr. and Mrs. James A. Ham, Sr., Pam and Monte Harrington, Bury and Lesesne Hudson, Teresa D. and Roger L. Jones, Lenna Ruth Macdonald and Robert C. Carew, Angela D. and Ben F. Mack, Debbie Rice-Marko and John Marko, Gwen and Layton McCurdy, Peter and Suzanne Pollak, Harriet B. and Richard W. Smartt, Mr. Todd Smith and Mr. Ben Hood, Tom and Lenora White, Mr. John Henry Dick, Mr. Don R. Gestefeld, Mrs. C. Gustavus Memminger, Ms. Evelyn Borchard Metzger and Ms. Doris Rosenthal. Artwork in the public domain.
As an artist, Eastman Johnson was known for his genre paintings and for his sympathetic scenes of African American life. While it is tempting to read Dinah, Portrait of a Negress as a portrait of a single individual, in the 1850s Dinah became an archetypal or stock figure associated with enslaved Black women. Further identifying the woman as a “Negress,” a term coined in the eighteenth century, reiterates her status as an Other. Set against an ambiguous but dark background, “Dinah” leans on her cane, bearing a somber expression. Is she waiting for something? A decision on her fate or the status of her livelihood? This “portrait” highlights the generalizations of representation that circulated during the nineteenth century.