James E. Johnson


(c. 1810–1858),
portrait artist, lived and worked in New York State in the mid-nineteenth century. Nothing is known about his early life or how he initially developed an interest in painting likenesses. According to Ruth Piwonka and Roderic H.Blackburn, who researched and wrote the seminal work on Johnson published in 1975, the artist was born about 1810 in Sandy Hill, New York. He appears to have begun working as an artist in the 1830s, as at least eight portraits have been recorded from thisdecade, all depicting residents of Spencertown, New York.His earliest known composition, dating from 1831, depicts a Mrs. Johnson, who may be the artist’s mother. Census records indicate that by 1846 Johnson wasliving in Kinderhook, New York, in Columbia County. In 1852 he married local resident Sarah Ann Van Vleck, who was from a prominent agricultural family.Seventeen portraits of Kinderhook citizens have been documented, including one of the artist’s wife that dates from a year after their marriage. In 1855 the couple stillresided in Kinderhook, as the census records list Johnson as an artist. Three years later, in 1858, James E.Johnson died at the age of 48.Although only a handful of Johnson’s likenesses have been located, the double portrait depicting Sherman Griswold and his wife, Lydia Dean, dating from about1837, may be the artist’s most ambitious composition. Measuring seven by four feet, the couple stands full-length in the foreground, their family homestead, the“Hatfield Farm,” stretching out behind them in the background. Three sheep gather at their feet, being fed from a basket that Mr. Griswold holds in his hand.A contemporary of Ammi Phillips (1788–1865), who also made portraits of Columbia County residents, Johnson executed his later compositions without thelightness of color and artistic finesse that made many of his competitors so successful. Instead, existing portraits suggest that the artist portrayed most of his patronsusing the somber tones of a dark, muted palette. Subjects are often presented in spandrel surrounds, a Victorian convention borrowed, in part, from photography.Women are dressed in dark clothing and wear white lace bonnets. Men are portrayed in bust-length format, wearing black suits, and sitting in chairs that are cast against neutral backgrounds devoid of decoration or context.
See also

Ammi Phillips; Painting, American Folk
Piwonka, Ruth, and Roderic H.Blackburn.
James E.Johnson, Rural Artist: A Catalogue of an Exhibition of Portraits by James E. Johnson, 1810–1858, of Columbia County,
N.Y. Kinderhook, N.Y., 1975