While Johnson's maple sugar paintings might at first appear to be straightforward nostalgic scenes of a traditional New England activity, they also communicate a powerful message about freedom and independence. A strong supporter of the Union cause, Johnson likely identified maple sugar, created by free workers, as a valuable alternative to cane sugar, which was produced by slaves on plantations. Maple sugar therefore provided a powerful metaphor for Johnson's message that through hard work and common purpose, the country might emerge united after the tumult of the Civil War.

Yet by the 1860s, the subject of sugaring may have been too remote to appeal to a largely urban art-buying public that preferred cane sugar's pleasing whiteness and texture, despite its ties to slavery. This might be one reason that Johnson never finished a sugaring-off studio oil. Normally a shrewd judge of his buyers, Johnson seems to have either misjudged the mood or suffered from bad timing. As the 1860s progressed, many began to prefer smaller paintings featuring women and children to larger scenes such as the sugaring off. Though Johnson later managed to finish a major painting depicting agricultural life in New England, he chose cranberry picking and corn husking in Nantucket, rather than maple sugaring, as his subject.


Making Maple Sugar
c. 1861-65
(Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Gift of Teresa Heinz in memory of her husband, H. John Heinz III, B.A. 1960)

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