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Johnson, Joshua [American, active 1796-1824] 






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Johnson, Joshua [American, active 1796-1824]

[ 19th Century Artists ]

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 Color.”

Johnson's style reflects the colonial taste for stiff interpretations of European models that crystallized 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. Joshua Johnson died in or around 1832.

The image accompanying this article is believed to be Johnson's portrait of thr Reverend Danial Coker (1780–1846), one of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

  Johnson, Joshua [American, active 1796-1824]

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Title: Mrs. John Moale (Ellin North) and Ellin North Moale
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Title: Sea Captain John Murphy
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Title: Mrs. Abraham White, Jr. and Daughter Rose
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