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Artists in 60 Seconds: Joshua Johnson or Joshua Johnston

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Photograph provided by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC; used with permission

Joshua Johnson (American, b. ca. 1765, d. after 1825). Girl Wearing a Bonnet, ca. 1810. Oil on canvas. 24 1/8 x 20 3/16 in.

Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

American Portraiture, Federalist Period

Date and Place of Birth:

ca. 1765; place unknown

Life:

Joshua Johnson (or Johnston) was the first African American professional portraitist we know of in American art history. Unfortunately, we know very little about his life. Was he born in Baltimore, Maryland? Was he born a freeman or was he born a slave? Did he come from the West Indies as an indentured servant? Or was he born to a white man (George Johnson or Johnston) and black woman owned by William Wheeler, and became free as a young man.

In 1939, Dr. Jacob Hall Pleasants, a Baltimore genealogist and historian, took an interest in Johnson's work and tried to establish the facts about his career. In 1996, Jennifer Bryan and Robert Torchia wrote the most comprehensive article which points to the chattel record of 1782 to verify his parentage.

This document, found in the Maryland Historical Society, describes a free 19 year old named Joshua Johnson who trained as a blacksmith. This Joshua Johnson married, had children and became a self-taught portraitist in the late 1790s.

In a 1798 advertisement published in the Baltimore Intelligencer, Johnson described himself as "having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies." From 1798 to 1824, he was listed in the Baltimore directory as a portrait painter and "Free Householder of Colour."

Johnson's style reflects the colonial taste for stiff interpretations of European models that crystalized into conventional poses through copying the copies. Early American artists Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) and Charles Peal Polk (1776-1822) have been compared to Johnson's work as possible sources of influence.

Johnson painted the wealthy plantation owners in Maryland and Virginia. Only one signed portrait, Sarah Ogden Gustin (ca. 1805), can be used to establish his hand.

Important Works:

  • Sarah Ogden Gustin, ca. 1805, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

  • The McCormick Family, 1805, The Maryland Historical Society

  • Girl Wearing a Bonnet, ca. 1810, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York

  • Young Lady on a Red Sofa, ca. 1810, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Peter H. Tillou

Date and Place of Death:

ca. 1830, Baltimore, Maryland

Sources:

Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center of Colonial Williamsburg and the Maryland Historical Society, 1988.

Bryan, Jennifer and Robert Torchia, "The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson," Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 36, no. 2 (1996): 2-7.

Simmons, Linda Crocker, "Joshua Johnson," Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. Edited by Gerard C. Wertkin and Lee Kogan, American Folk Art Museum
New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

Driskell, David C. Two Centuries of Black American Art.
Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum and Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

Sims, Lowery Stokes. African American Art: 200 Years.
New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2008.

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