JOSHUA JOHNSON (about 1763–1830)
Portrait of a Gentleman, about 1805
Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 28 in.
RECORDED: Carolyn J. Weekley and Stiles Tuttle Colwill, Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter, exhib. cat. (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1987), p. 130 no. 35 illus. in color
EXHIBITED: Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore; The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia; The Whitney Museum of American Art, Midtown, New York and Stamford, Connecticut, 1987–88; Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter
EX COLL.: the artist; private collection in Baltimore by 1853; [Roger Haase and Michael Birdsall, Art and Antiques, St. Paul, Minnesota, by 1987]; private collection until 2022
Johnson’s style was well suited to the tastes of his audience. His portraits present his subjects in a straightforward manner. The present portrait of an unidentified gentleman offers a case in point. The work is concisely described in the 1987 monographic catalogue by Carolyn Weekley and Stiles Colwill:
The gentleman sits in a typical Baltimore side chair with an oval back and holds a sealed letter in his hand.... The drawing of the face is especially good in this portrait and lacks the exaggerated curved upper eyelids seen in many of Johnson’s paintings. But the composition, flat treatment of the costumes, and particularly the characteristic shapes and positions of the hands are important earmarks of the artist’s style.
The inclusion in the portrait of a written document, the sealed letter at the lower right, is a hallmark of Johnson’s iconography. It indicates Johnson’s respect for the written word, and by extension, for the crucial importance of the ability to read. In this respect, Johnson anticipates, by two generations, the essential truth of the quote widely attributed to Frederick Douglass, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Johnson’s key to freedom was his gift of visual literacy. It is significant that the artist’s name appears in only one portrait, that of Sarah Ogden Gustin, where it occupies pride of place, clearly inscribed at the top of a page of the open book that Mrs. Gustin holds on her lap.