In the field of American art, one of the most important revelations of the early twenty-first century has been the discovery of documentation for the parentage and race of Joshua Johnson, one of the most important early African-American painters. In contrast to twentieth-century speculation about his life, his parents have now been positively identified, as have certain elements of his professional training.
Johnson was born between 1761 and 1763, son of George Johnson of Baltimore County, Maryland, and an unidentified enslaved woman. In 1764 he was purchased by his father from William Wheeler Sr., a farmer and the presumed owner of his mother. His father apprenticed him to learn the trade of blacksmithing from William Forepaugh of Baltimore. In July 1782, George Johnson recorded that "a certain Mulatto child named Joshua Johnson which I acknowledge to be my son" should be manumitted, given his freedom, "as soon as he shall be out of his said Apprenticeship or arrive at the age of 21 years which shall first happen." It is evident one of these two events had taken place—either Joshua was twenty-one years old, or he had completed his apprenticeship to Forepaugh—on July 15, when his father had his manumission recorded, providing Joshua Johnson his freedom. Although Johnson was trained as a blacksmith, none of his work in this medium has been located. Further, the manner and extent of his training as a painter is not known, though hints of the difficulties he faced are evident in the first of his three known newspaper advertisements, published on December 19, 1798, in the Baltimore Intelligencer :
The subscriber, grateful for the liberal encouragement which an indulgent public have conferred on him, in his first essays, in PORTRAIT PAINTING, returns his sincere acknowledgements. He takes liberty to observe, That by dint of industrious application, he has far improved and matured his talents, that he can insure the most precise and natural likenesses. As a selftaught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the Art; and having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies, it is highly gratifying to him to make assurances of his ability to execute all commands, with an effort, and in a style, which must give satisfaction. He therefore respectfully solicits encouragement. Apply at His house, in the alley leading from Charles to Hanover Street, back of Sear's Tavern. JOSHUA JOHNSTON [Johnson's name is found spelled with and without the "t" in nineteenth-century records].
It is speculated that the earliest dated works by Joshua Johnson were not painted before the mid- to late 1780s, if not the early 1790s, a chronology supported by his advertisement and the life dates of the sitters depicted in many of his earliest paintings. Johnson was to continue his activity as a portrait painter through the early 1820s. Among his finest paintings of family groups are Mrs. Thomas Everette and Her Children (1818, oil on canvas, 38 7/8 by 55 3/16 inches, held by the Maryland Historical Society) and Mrs. Hugh McCurdy and Her Daughters (1806-1807, oil on canvas, 41 by 34 1/2 inches, held by the Corcoran Gallery of Art). Johnson's best-known portraits of children include The Westwood Children (1807); Portrait of Edward Pennington Rutter and Sarah Ann Rutter (1804); and Charles John Stricker Wilmans (1806-1807, oil on canvas, 41 by 34 1/2 inches, held by the sitters have been identified. One of these, Portrait of Daniel Coker (1805–1810, collection of the American Museum in Bath, England), is considered Johnson's most important work, a rendering of the prominent early black Methodist and advocate of African emigration.
Joshua Johnson and his portraits were rediscovered by the art world in the 1930s through the work of Dr. J. Hall Pleasants, a doctor and historian/genealogist. By 1939, Dr. Pleasants had located thirteen paintings related
by style and family traditions. His first article, "Joshua Johnson, the First Black American Painter?" in the Walpole Society Note Book ended with a question mark because the evidence did not conclusively identify the painter's race. For decades this question continued to be raised by artists and historians, including the artist Romare Bearden (1911–1988) in his History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present (1993). Johnson's paintings have been widely collected and exhibited. Noted examples are found in private collections and major museums including the National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Although some descendants of Johnson's portrait subjects have recollected family traditions of a black artist painting their ancestral portrait, there was only one Baltimore city directory entry that identified a race for Johnson, in spite of the same name being listed in nine additional directories. The 1817–1818 edition listed him under "Free Householders of Colour." It appears that different clerks recorded his race according to varying interpretations of his appearance.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Baltimore was home to a community of free blacks as well as aristocratic abolitionists, a situation that appears to have helped Johnson's career as a portrait painter. Johnson's residencies at various locations around the center of Baltimore were often in the same neighborhoods as many of his sitters.
Johnson is presumed to have died sometime after 1824, the last year he is found in Baltimore municipal records. No date of death or burial records have been located for him, although records indicate that his second wife, Clara (or Clarissa), whom he had wed before 1803, probably survived him. Johnson's first marriage—to Sarah, sometime before 1798—resulted in two daughters, both of whom died in childhood, and two sons, who grew up in Baltimore. (The surnames of his wives are unknown.)
Johnson's training as an artist has never been documented, although visual comparisons relate his work to that of members of the Peale family, which was active in the Baltimore region. These include the inventor and museum founder Charles Willson Peale, his sons Rembrandt and Raphaelle, and their cousin Charles Peale Polk. All of these men were painters, and Johnson very likely knew portraits painted by Polk during the late 1780s into the mid 1790s. Johnson and Polk used similar compositional devices and props and were interested in both the physical and psychological relationships between sitters. Thus, although Polk was never Johnson's owner or master, he is related to Johnson stylistically. Polk occasionally depicted women wearing white dresses as well as others in a variety of outfits that included scarves, fichus (light triangular scarves), and other accessories. Research has shown that many of the items included in Polk's portraits related specifically to the sitter, and the same is likely to have been true for their clothing. Johnson's style, from his earliest to his latest works, visually incorporates elements that are likely to be the result of influence of the Peales, specifically Polk.
Johnson's "signature" elements include women and girls wearing white empire dresses; carrying accessories such as strawberries, red shoes, or umbrellas; and usually seated or arranged beside pieces of distinctive Baltimore upholstered furniture. A mother, her daughters, and occasionally her young sons, are captured in a thin silvery atmosphere, linked by their gestures as a family group, and further unified by the repetition of details such as the white dresses.
Interestingly, Johnson often painted portraits of children, many of which survive. These include his signature
style, with such elements as books, fruit, and red shoes. His depictions of children probably indicate an area actively cultivated for his patrons. These works are dynamic and share elements and details of composition. Each places the child in a stage-like environment, often with draperies and patterned stone floors in ambiguous indoor-outdoor settings. Each child appears to have been dressed in his or her best outfit. The attractiveness of these endearing portrayals would have served as a good advertisement of Johnson's abilities and likely brought him additional work.
Part of Johnson's style, thought to be drawn from his training and work as a blacksmith, is a sharp curving linearity. Translations of the curves and turns of ornamental ironwork are suggested by the sinuous lines of the furniture and the rigid columnar quality of the human forms. Further, the light of Baltimore, a seaport undiminished by pollution, must be acknowledged as one possible source for the silvery palette often seen in Johnson's paintings. These elements of palette and form combine with a precision of details, a tautness of line, and a thin application of paint in the areas of the laces and diaphanous fabrics to produce in Johnson's mature works a style that did not merely mimic that of the painters of the Peale family and other Baltimore competitors, but that provided a fashionable and attractive alternative to them.
See also Painting and Sculpture
Bearden, Romare, and Henry Henderson. "The Question of Joshua Johnston." In A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
Bryan, Jennifer, and Robert Torchia. "The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson." Archives of American Art Journal 36 (1996): 2–7.
Hartigan, Linda Roscoe. Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
Hunter, Wilbur Harvey, Jr. "Joshua Johnston: 18th-Century Negro Artist." American Collector 17 (February 1948): 6–8.
Perry, Mary Lynn, "Joshua Johnston: His Historical Context and His Art." Master's thesis, George Washington University, 1983.
Pleasants, J. Hall. "An Early Baltimore Negro Portrait Painter, Joshua Johnston." Walpole Society Note Book (1939): 37–73 (reprinted as a pamphlet in 1940).
Pleasants, J. Hall. "Joshua Johnston, The First American Negro Portrait Painter." Baltimore, Md.: Maryland Historical Society, 1942.
Pleasants, J. Hall. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Portraits by Joshua Johnston. Baltimore, Md.: Peale Museum, 1948.
Simmons, Linda Crocker. "The McCurdy Family by Joshua Johnson." In A Capital Collection, Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, edited by Eleanor Heartney. Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2002.
Weekley, Carolyn J., Stiles Tuttle Colwill, Leroy Graham, and Mary Ellen Hayward. Joshua Johnston, Freeman and American Portrait Painter. Baltimore, Md.: Maryland Historical Society, 1987.
linda crocker simmons (1996)
Updated by author 2005