Joshua Johnson was the first man of color to enjoy a professional career as an artist in America. An oeuvre of over eighty-three known works, all portraits, has now been attributed to him, based on clear shared stylistic affinities buttressed by family histories recalling the origins of the paintings. Johnson frequently painted multiple portraits of members of the same family.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Baltimore was the third largest city in America. With a burgeoning foreign and domestic trade, Baltimore capitalized on its coastal setting to become one of the most active ports in the new Republic, a vibrant center of mercantile activity. The city’s character, reflecting this economy, became increasingly cosmopolitan, and grew to encompass one of the largest communities of abolitionists and free African Americans in the country. In December 1798, Joshua Johnson described himself in an advertisement in the Baltimore Intelligencer, as a “self-taught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the art; and having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies.” (The definitive work on Johnson remains the exhibition catalogue cited above by Carolyn J. Weekley and Stiles Tuttle Colwill, Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter, exhib. cat. [Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1987]. The advertisement is cited in Leroy Graham’s an essay in that catalogue, “Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore,” p 38.) In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, Johnson established himself as a prolific and successful career portraitist, serving Baltimore’s wealthy elite as well as its middle-class merchant citizens.
Facts surrounding Johnson’s life and career have remained elusive ever since historian Dr. John Hall Pleasants “rediscovered” the artist in the late 1930s. Most recently, the issue of Johnson’s parentage has finally been resolved. Evidence, in the form of Johnson’s sale and manumission records, uncovered at the Maryland Historical Society’s Department of Manuscripts, now proves that Johnson was born around 1763 to a mixed-race couple, the son of George Johnson, a free white male, and an unnamed enslaved African American mother “owned” by William Wheeler, Sr. (See Jennifer Bryan and Robert Torchia, “The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson,” in Archives of American Art Journal XXXVI , pp. 2–7.) In 1764, the heirs of William Wheeler sold “a mulatto boy named Joshua” to George Johnston [sic]. In July 1782, Johnson directed that “a certain Mulatto child named Joshua Johnson which I acknowledge to be my son ... now aged upwards of Nineteen Years” be freed from slavery after he finished his apprenticeship with William Forepaw [sic, actually Forepaugh], a blacksmith, or reached the age of twenty-one, whichever came first (as reproduced and quoted in Bryan and Torchia, p. 2).
Johnson’s style has often been compared to that of Charles Peale Polk, who, along with the rest of the Peale family, lived in Baltimore during the early phase of Johnson’s career. There are indeed resemblances with respect to poses, flattened perspective, and similar choice of props. Johnson also shared several patrons with Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, and Polk, who could have facilitated Johnson’s access to his early clients. Based on these correspondences, some have speculated that Johnson may have apprenticed with the Peale family and learned his techniques from them. This supposed link between Johnson and the Peales rests on conjecture born of shared circumstance. What is beyond doubt is that the Peales occupied a preeminent place in Baltimore portraiture and that any aspiring artist would have looked toward them for style and technique. It is also clearly the case that both Johnson and Polk subscribed to a visual vernacular common among portraitists working in the limner tradition.
Johnson’s early works follow a more conventional portrait idiom, which he seems to have modified as his career matured, with his later paintings increasingly reflecting the aesthetic of folk art. In this respect, Johnson’s artistic development parallels that of Connecticut portraitist Ralph Earl, whose later portraits, in the limner style, are more mannered his earlier works. Looking again for “influences,” it has been suggested that perhaps Johnson made some form of contact with Earl’s son, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, citing the correspondence and relative uniqueness of a type of pose employed in one of each of their paintings. Again, there again is no evidence to substantiate a connection with the Earl family, leaving this hypothetical relationship a question for further research.
Reading back from the identification of some of Johnson’s patrons, it appears that his career was nurtured in part by the support of Baltimore’s abolitionist community. Johnson is known to have lived near prominent Baltimore abolitionist families Whether or not the artist had had their intentional support, he clearly benefited from their cultural influence and political power in the city. In addition to portraits of Caucasian patrons, Johnson also painted a portrait of a sitter who has been identified as national black leader, Reverend Daniel Coker.