“The Girl I Left Behind Me” and The Wait for Loved Ones to Return Home from War

Authored By Leah Phelan

Eastman Johnson, created in 1872, describes this oil on canvas by analyzing an Irish ballad popular with the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. The photograph depicts Civil War art and the impact of the war on America. The Smithsonian American Art Museum purchase was made in part by Mrs. Alexander Hamilton Rice in memory of her husband and Ralph Cross Johnson. The object number is 1986.79.

The oil canvas painting “The Girl I Left Behind Me” was painted by Eastman Johnson. The picture’s title was known to be an Irish ballad title in was made notable during the Civil War (Smithsonian American Art Museum: Commemorative Guide 2015, par. 2). The woman is surrounded by darkness as the wind blows, unsure of what will come next. Through the lyrics, a connection of unity as this woman in the painting is not the only woman to have to say goodbye to their loved one; “until I see my love again for whom my heart is breaking” (The Girl I Left Behind 2021, under “Brighton Camp”). Although other paintings were prevalent, this was the first time an artist depicted the impacts of war in American art, allowing artists to voice concerns for the nation (Smithsonian American Art Museum: Commemorative Guide 2015, par. 2).

 Jonathan Eastman Johnson was the full name Eastman Johnson was born with, was used to be called upon by his second name. From an early age, Johnson created crayon portraits, which shaped his becoming a well-known artist (Jonathan Eastman Johnson 1936, par. 1). However, the paintings that had the most influence were his genre paintings of American life during the 1860s and 1870s, primarily the Civil War (Jonathan Eastman Johnson, 1998). One of the many goals of the art of Johnson was not to let the painting lose its individuality and experiences at the time (Jonathan Eastman Johnson 1936, par. 3).

The paintings created by artists during the Civil War were the first to show the impacts of children and their families missing those fighting in the war (Richards-Rivenbark 2014, par. 1). The family of Johnson, especially the children, experienced the parting of loved ones who were to leave their homes (Cleaveland 2000, par. 2). As depicted in Johnson’s painting, a woman waits for her husband to return home, apparently clenching her wedding ring as the wind causes her hair to sway (The Girl I Left Behind Me n.d., par. 1)

The Vincentian tradition is to serve those who are poor or who have social inequalities (Sinatra & Maher 2012, 65-90). The painting primarily shows a woman waiting for her husband to return home from war, but it acts to show support to those who may be missing a family member currently serving time to defend their country today. Art creates the connection of painting through “real life” experiences of today to sharing one’s own stories. The benefits sharing of our stories benefits the community by acknowledging that we all have our struggles and have the opportunity to learn more about one another through art.


Cleaveland, Nancy. 2000. “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Pioneergirl.com (blog).  http://www.pioneergirl.com/blog/archives/4346.

“The Girl I Left Behind Me.” 2021. Age of a Revolution. https://ageofrevolution.net/born-in-battle-the-american-revolution-online/music/the-girl-i-left

“The Girl I Left Behind Me.” n.d. “The Girl I Left behind Me.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/girl-i-left-behind-me-11492.

“Jonathan Eastman Johnson.” 1936. In Dictionary of American Biography. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BT2310010264/BIC?u=mlin_s_thomas&sid=bookmark-BIC&xid=f4bc4eeb.

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Richards-Rivenbark, Elizabeth. 2014. “The end of innocence: the effects of the civil war on children in the paintings of Eastman Johnson.” War, Literature & The Arts 26, no. 1 (https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A420050649/AONE?u=mlin_s_thomas&sid=googleScholar&xid=bafdae5f.

Sinatra, Richard, and James J. Maher. 2012 “Advancing the Vincentian tradition through strategic service and research.” Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice 16, no. 1: 65-90. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A346395730/AONE?u=mlin_s_thomas&sid=googleScholar&xid=aae36133.

Smithsonian American Art Museum: Commemorative Guide. 2015. Nashville, TN: Beckon Books.