Maple sugar occupies a distinct place in New England lore, a place the artist Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) sought to define and exploit in a series of paintings of sugar making from the early 1860s, when Johnson was becoming one of the most prominent genre painters and portraitists of his time. At the center of these paintings is the "sugaring off," the raucous party celebrating the boiling of the season's first batch of sap. Johnson, who lived in Fryeburg, Maine, as a child, used the sugaring off to explore a range of New England characteristics and types.

Full of nostalgia for traditional values, these paintings celebrate New England ingenuity, ruggedness, independence, and community spirit, offering an important message about the ideals of freedom during the tumult of the Civil War. In addition, the maple sugar series, which includes both large-scale oil sketches and small character studies, reveals the artist's process as he developed his concept. Yet for all his efforts, Johnson never completed a major oil of the sugaring off, and all of the works in the exhibition are experiments for the final painting that he mysteriously never finished.


Sugaring Off at the Camp, Fryeburg, Maine
c. 1861-85
(Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis)

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