As the first person of color to make a living as a painter in the United States, Johnson is known for his naïve paintings of prominent Maryland residents. Johnson has invariably written about and described under both names “Johnson” and “Johnston” with a ‘t”.
Although he is the best documented of all the eighteenth century African-American artists, Joshua Johnson remains a shadowy painter at best. The mysterious painter of 19th century Baltimore who has become known recently through a number of portraits which bear the distinct touch of a master, was listed in the Baltimore Directory as a portrait painter from l796-1824. Following his death, his works were credited to other artists. It has taken massive research and many years to uncover some two-dozen or more of his paintings.
It was not until 1939 that the identity of the painter of elite 19th century Baltimoreans was shed to light by art historian and genealogist J. Hall Pleasants, who believed that thirteen portraits were painted by one Joshua Johnson. Pleasants attempted to put the puzzle of Johnson's life together, however, questions on Johnson's race, life dates, and even his last name (Johnson or Johnston) remained. These questions remained up until the mid-1990s, when the Maryland Historical Society released newly found manuscripts regarding Johnson's life.
Thanks to the work of the late Dr. J. Hall Pleasants of the Maryland Historical Society, one can draw a vague portrait of Joshua Johnson that he was a Free Householder of color and also that he was first a slave, who later gained his freedom, perhaps earning it through his work as a painter. Documents dated from July 25, 1782, states that Johnson was the "son of a white man and a black slave woman owned by a William Wheeler, Sr.". His father, George Johnson (also spelled Johnston in some documents) purchased Joshua, age 19, from William Wheeler, a small Baltimore based farmer, confirmed by a bill of sale dating from October 6, 1764. Wheeler sold Johnson the young man for £25, half the average price of a male slave field hand at the time. The documents state little of Joshua's mother, not even her name, and she may have been owned by Wheeler, whose own records stated that he owned two female slaves, one of whom had two children.
A manumission was also released in which George Johnson acknowledged Joshua as his son, also stating that he would agree to free Joshua under the conditions that he either completed an apprenticeship with Baltimore blacksmith William Forepaugh or turned 21, whichever came first. Oddly enough, the manumission was signed and confirmed by justice of the peace Colonel John Moale who would, during the years of 1798-1800, commission Joshua to paint a portrait of his wife and granddaughter (Mrs. John Moale and Her Granddaughter Ellin North Moale). Early thoughts were that his work strongly suggests the influence of Charles Peale Polk, a very active portrait painter in Baltimore in the l790s. Tradition in the Moale family, whose portraits he painted, seem to also imply that he might have been a slave of Colonel John Moale, who lived on German Street in Baltimore. At one time the artist is listed as living on the same street, which seems to authenticate this fact.
Recent research has brought to light that Johnson was not in fact associated with the Peale family, however, his work is still associated with names such as Charles Peale Polk, who's naive painting and less sophisticated work (compared to his other family members) is similar to Johnson's. Johnson’s work is concluded to be more similar to less known ‘limners’ who worked during the same time in the mid-Atlantic region: John Drinker, Frederick Kemmelmeyer, Jacob Frymire, and Caleb Boyle. In fact, Johnson may have been more than familiar with the work of these artists than thought. In 1818 he was commissioned by patron Rebecca Myring Everette to copy Boyle's 1807 portrait of her husband, Thomas Everett.
Johnson received his freedom in 1782 and began advertising, starting himself as a portrait painter and limner as of 1796. He moved frequently and lived at a number of colorful addresses, such as Primrose Alley and Strawberry Lane, residing often where other artists, specifically chair-makers lived, which suggests that he may have provided extra income for himself by painting chairs. His frequent moving also may suggest that he tended to work for clients whom he lived by. No records mention educational or creative training and it still has not been proven that he had any type of relationship with artists such as the Peale family or Ralph Earl or Ralph Earl Jr.
In 1785 he married his first wife, Sarah, who had four children with him – two sons and two daughters, the latter both died young. By 1803 he was married to a Clara. According to the Baltimore city directory of 1817-1818, he was listed in the section “Free Householders of Colour.” In 1825 he had moved to Frederick County, Maryland, and two years later moved to Anne Arundel County, again, following the paths of those whose portraits he painted. Little is known of his life after this final move, and his death.
He must have been successful when considered the number of known paintings done by him for wealthy Baltimore families. This indicates exceptional talent when considered that he must have been self-taught.
Johnston was a “primitive painter”. His work has a two-dimensional quality and his subjects posed somewhat still and formal poses. However, the simplicity of his style has certain innocent charm. In all of Johnston’s portraits, the poses are similar. The figures have expressionless, pudgy hands and are holding an object. Since the same things appear in different paintings, they were likely props owned and used by the artist. In fact, two different members of the Bankson family are pictured wearing the same earrings.
Grace Allison McCurdy and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace, ca. 1804 in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art
While sittings may have taken place in the artist’s studio, it is possible that the props were kept and painted in without the sitter’s presences. The faces may have been done separately at the subject’s home. Such devices were frequently used by portrait painters to save the sitters time.
Johnson’s work has also been compared to Ralph Earl, who, like Johnson, also utilized brass upholstery tacks, swaged curtains and open window vistas in his paintings. However, a stronger comparison lies between Johnson and Earl’s son, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl. Both were noted for painting multi-figure family group portraits, which were rare during this period of American art. Both considered prominent self-taught “folk” artists. It can only be theorized if the two ever came into contact within similar circles.
Brass-studded Sheraton sofas and chairs are used frequently in Johnston’s paintings. It has been solemnized that this metallic rhythmic use of nails is an Africanism. However, this seems far-fetched. Had the nails been inserted into the canvas there might be a clearer relationship but since they are merely painted on it is more likely these are the artists props. Several other features make repeated appearances in Johnson’s paintings-baskets of strawberries or cherries, a letter, book, or map; the same tassel; and a peculiar fuzzy white dog, with a pig like face.
In his painting, The Westwood Children (now in the National Gallery of Art), Johnson depicts the male children of Margaret and John Westwood, who was a successful Baltimore stagecoach manufacturer. The painting is stylized and depicts the three children holding flowers in their hands, accompanied by the family dog, which holds a bird in its mouth. The children have chilled expressionless stares, although the youngest child seems to be on the verge of smiling.
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REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS
- Bryan, Jennifer & Robert Torchia.The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson. Archives of American Art Journal, Vol 36., No 2. Smithsonian Institution. 1996.
- Colwill, Stiles Tuttle, Leroy Graham, Mary Ellen Hayward & Carolyn J. Weekley.Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore. 1988.
- The Westwood Children. The National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 2004-05-15