a Bostonian, was trained as an ornamental painter—he and his brother-in-law Daniel Rea had a decorating business—but was also a talented portraitist and miniaturist.The account books of Rea & Johnston (1768–1803) are significant historical documents not only for the business of the ornamental painter but for arts and crafts in New England generally.Johnston was one of eleven children of the japanner and organist Thomas Johnston. John’s brothers Thomas Jr., William, and Benjamin were engaged in crafts andrelated trades, and his sister Rachel married Daniel Rea; but John was the best-known because of his competence as a portraitist, according to Coburn. When Johnwas a teenager, his father died. With little formal education, he was apprenticed to John Gore, a sign painter and house painter, until 1773. The American RevolutionaryWar interrupted Johnston’s career; he served under General Henry Knox with Richard Gridley’s artillery regiment (1775), became a lieutenant and then a captain,fought in the Battle of Long Island (New York), and was wounded and taken prisoner by the British before being honorably discharged. Years later, he was electedcaptain of an artillery company and was known as Major Johnston; on January 17, 1795, he advertised in the
“Miniature Painting, Is performedat the room over Major Johnston’s Painting Room, Court Street, where good likenesses, neatly painted, may be had upon reasonable terms.”Johnston joined Rea, who had taken over the business of Thomas Johnston Sr. Rea & Johnston painted signs, ships, houses, venetian blinds, cradles, chairs, andgarden gates. In 1786, there was an entry on Paul Revere’s account: “Aug. 23. To painting the backs of masonick chairs. /6/.” In 1778, during the War, the firmcharged Deacon Shem, Drowne, tinsmith, maker of the icon grasshopper weathervane on top of Faneuil Hall, 12/00: “To Cleaning old drowns picture,” with a follow-up, “By error of Mr. Drowns picture, being never paid, 12.” They also did business with the painter Ralph Earl in 1778, when he was in Boston. A schoolmaster wascharged $1.25 for one day’s work by one painter. Rea & Johnson painted signs (some-times amusing) for several Bostonian tradesmen: William Caldwell,coppersmith; Kettle and Leach, founders; John Sealaring, saddler; James Yancey, aucioneer; Joseph Ruggles, sailmaker; William Shattuck, merchant; Isaac White, tallow chandler. The firm also gilded picture frames for the joiner and cabinetmaker Samuel Stratford.
Shem Drowne; Ralph Earl; Miniatures;
Painting, American Folk; Trade Signs
Coburn, Frederick W. “The Johnstons of Boston.”
Art in America,
vol. 21, no. 1 (December 1932): 27–36. ——. “The Johnstons of Boston, Part Two.”
Art in America,
vol. 21, no. 4 (October 1933): 132–138.Dunlap, William.
History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design,
vol. 111. New York, 1834, 1965; Boston, 1918.Groce, George C., and David H.Wallace.
The New York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America 1564–1860.
New Haven, Conn., and London, 1957.