is noted as an exceptionally talented portrait painter, one of the first identified as an African American to whom a surviving significant body of work can be attributed.Indeed, he has been the subject of extensive study since his rediscovery in the 1940s by Dr. Jacob Hall Pleasants of Baltimore, Maryland. In contemporary records,Johnson’s name has been found spelled with and without the
recent scholars have deleted it.Johnson was the son of George Johnson and a slave mother whose identity has not been determined. In 1764 he was apprenticed to learn the trade of a blacksmith.Eighteen years later, he was manumitted and gained his freedom. Subsequently married within five years, he started a family, and sixteen years later began a career as a portrait painter. The extent of his artistic training is not known, but hints of the difficulties he faced are evident in this advertisement that appeared in the
on December 19, 1798 (one of his three known newspaper advertisements): “PORTRAIT PAINTING. The subscriber, grateful for the liberalencouragement which an indulgent public have conferred on him in his first essays in PORTRAIT PAINTING, returns his sincere acknowledgements. He takes theliberty to observe, that by dint of industrious application, he has so far improved and matured his talents, that he can insure the most precise and natural likenesses. As aself-taught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the Art, and having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies, it is highlygratifying to him to make assurances of his ability to execute all commands, with an effect, and in a style, which must give satisfaction.” Johnson’s training as an artist hasnever been documented, but visual comparisons relate his work to the members of the Peale family active in the Baltimore region, including Charles Willson Peale(1741–1827), James Peale (1749–1831), and Charles Peale Polk (1776–1822). Johnson very likely knew of portrait paintings by Polk, as the two used similar compositional devices and props, and were interested in both the physical and psychological relationships between sitters. Thus, Polk, who has never been legallydocumented as Johnson’s master, can rather claim an artistic relationship.Johnson is thought to have usually painted portraits of families seated on a sofa and depicted together on one large canvas. He frequently painted portraits of children, many of which survive and include his signature elements, such as books, fruit, and red shoes.
African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Painting, American Folk; Charles Peale Polk
Saltman, Jack, et al., ed.
Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History.
New York, 1996.Simmons, Linda Crocker.
Charles Peale Polk, 1776–1822: A Limner and His Likenesses.
Washington, D.C., 1981.Torchia, Robert, and Jennifer Bryan. “The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson.”
Archives of American Art Journal,
vol. 36, no. 2 (1996): 2–7.