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Johnson-Baker-Shelton House

Traveling up Winthrop Street a short distance you come to 61 Winthrop Street where the Kennebec Historical Society has its office in the Johnson-Baker-Shelton House, named for the prominent families who lived there. This elegant home sits on what has been referred to as nineteenth-century Augusta's Grand Avenue, for many elegant homes and churches lined Winthrop Street. Many are gone, and those that remain serve purposes far different from their original intent. Most were designed as private residences , but now serve as offices for public and private organizations and businesses. Those that remain are a visual reminder of Augusta's grand past. The Johnson-Baker-Shelton House was in danger of being demolished in the late twentieth century, but in 1998 Mary McCarthy, an Augusta resident, purchased and restored the historic building.

Mary Chandler Johnson lived at 61 Winthrop Street from 1842 to 1846 with her husband Philip Carrigan Johnson and their children. The Johnsons came to Augusta in 1834, and lived first around the corner on Pleasant Street. Mary's husband was an enterprising and successful man who had businesses in western Maine before coming to Augusta. He became Secretary of State in 1840, then later secured a government job in Washington, DC. Little is written of Mary's life except that she raised eight children and oversaw a busy household, presumably with all the attendant entertaining and social requirements that supported her husband's career. The non-ending cycles of cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, home supervision, and entertaining would have been a formidable task, even with household help. We can only speculate about what sort of person Mary was through the surviving words and work of her children, and we see this most readily through her third child, Eastman Johnson. Johnson was a renown artist in the nineteenth century, known for his American genre paintings, the most famous of which are scenes of rustic Maine. Johnson also painted women, often as strong, individual characters engaged in activities or settings not usually topics for painting in that time period - sometimes reading or in non-romanticized acts of every-day life.

Eastman Johnson lived in Augusta from 1834 to 1840, then again for a period in 1842. After leaving, he kept in touch with his Maine friends, including Charlotte Child, an Augusta school mate. A letter to Charlotte is one of few from his pen that remain. Johnson wrote from Holland (where he was studying) to Charlotte in March of 1851 that he lamented his social life there and missed the pretty girls of Down East, presumably referring to girls he knew in Augusta. He thought them to be –the prettiest" in the world.

Although Eastman Johnson was well known in the nineteenth century, he has been overshadowed in the historical record by his younger contemporary, Winslow Homer. According to some art historians, during the nineteenth century Johnson was more widely known and considered to be a more accomplished painter.

Mary Chandler Johnson died sometime in 1855, after the family moved to D.C. Her husband in noted as a recent widower the fall of that year. No known images (or letters) of Mary survive, but Eastman painted his sisters, his wife, and his daughter, as well as many other women - including Black women and American Indian women. Mary may have been too busy to sit for a portrait, or possibly too shy, or the images may not have been kept. Eastman Johnson's depiction of women is the only suggestion we have of the possible relationship between mother and son and the only intimation we have of the person she might have been.

 

Site #30.1 Sources:

 

Augusta Conservation Commission, Kennebec Historical Society, and Augusta Recreation Department. –Historical Walking Tour of Augusta Maine" (pamphlet), no date.

 

Barry, David. –The Rembrandt of Sugaring Off." Down East, the Magazine of Maine, Vol. 38, No.9, April 1992.

 

Carbone, Teresa A. and Patricia Hills. Eastman Johnson: Painting America. New York: Brooklyn Museum of Art: Rizzoli, 1999.

 

Douin, Anthony. Interviews by and conversations with Phyllis vonHerrlich, 17 March 2001, 31 August 2001, 18 September 2001, 28 September, 18 October 2001, Augusta, Maine.

 

Hills, Patricia. The Genre Painting of Eastman Johnson: The Sources and Development. Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1973. [Published by Garland Publishing (New York) 1977.

 

Owen, Joseph (President, Kennebec Historical Society). Interview by Phyllis vonHerrlich, 8 March 2001.

 

Violette, Zachary. Winthrop Street, Augusta, Maine: An Architectural and Historical Overview. Augusta, ME: Kennebec Historical Society, 1999.

 

 

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