After securing a reputation as one of the finest genre painters of the late 19th century, Eastman Johnson concentrated increasingly on portrait painting in his later years. It was a more lucrative subject matter in which he had considerable experience, and after 1880 his distinguished roster of sitters included industrialists, financiers, and politicians. Among them were two U.S. presidents, Grover Cleveland (1891) and Benjamin Harrison (1895), whom the federal government commissioned Johnson to paint. The bust-length portrait of Senator Justin Morrill is arguably superior to these larger presidential portraits, both in the White House collection. Broadly painted and securely modeled, Morrill’s head is depicted against a backdrop of mottled, modulated grays, a refreshing change from the preponderantly dark and murky backgrounds of so many late-Victorian portraits. The several grays in Morrill’s hair, as well as his softly painted muttonchops, play subtly against this lively background.
In Johnson, Morrill found a painter whose temperament was well suited to his own. A New Englander like the senator, Johnson evidenced empathy for the admirable legislator’s character in this sober portrait. Firmness of character is conveyed through firmness of structure in the closely observed features. Morrill’s gaze follows the turn of his head, looking away from the viewer and creating a thoughtful mood.
Cornell University, one of the institutions created by the Morrill Land Grant College Act, had honored the “Father of the Agricultural Colleges” by commissioning Eastman Johnson to paint Morrill’s portrait in 1883. At the picture’s unveiling that year in Ithaca, New York, the senator remarked: “The sitting for a portrait, if I may be pardoned for saying so, is rather an awkward business for a modest man who can find anything else to do.”  Morrill ordered this excellent replica of the Cornell painting from Johnson the following year for display in his Washington, D.C., home. The house was built under the direction of Architect of the Capitol Edward Clark, with decorated ceilings by artist Constantino Brumidi. The Johnson portrait was in Morrill’s possession at the time of his death. In 1920 Louise S. Swan, sister-in-law of the late senator, bequeathed the painting to the United States to be hung in the Capitol.
1. William Belmont Parker, The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill (1924; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1971), 305.