"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, it is highly gratifying to him to make assurances of his ability to execute all commands with an effect, and in a style, which must give satisfaction." — Joshua Johnson quoted in Advertisement, "Portrait Painting," Baltimore Intelligencer, 19 Dec. 1798.
Joshua Johnson, or Johnston, the earliest documented professional African-American painter, was active in Baltimore during the late eighteenth and first quarter of the nineteenth century. His background, however, remains a mystery. The families and descendants of those whose portraits he painted claim that Johnson was a former slave. Whether Johnson was a slave or not is open to question since his name appears in the City Directory of Baltimore from 1796 to 1824, when the directory did not list slaves. Johnson's identity as an African American has been questioned as well. In editions of the directory in which an asterisk designated a person of color, there is no asterisk by Johnson's name. Johnson may have been biracial and fair enough to elude identification as an African American by publishers of the directory. In the directory of 1817, however, Johnson's name appears among the "free householders of Color" listed separately in the publication.
There appears to be no question about Johnson's occupation. In all the directories he is listed as a "limner" or "portrait painter," and seems to have had at least eight different addresses in Baltimore and neighboring Fells Point. Johnson's birthplace is unknown. It might have been Baltimore, or more likely the French West Indies from which he may have come to Baltimore as an indentured servant who eventually earned his freedom. The names of Johnson's wife Sarah and their three children, George, John, and Sarah, are recorded in Catholic church records in Baltimore. Land records indicate that Johnson was a property owner in Montgomery, Frederick, and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland after 1824. The land records establish the fact that Johnson was apparently financially successful in his profession.
Johnson's identity as an artist was first established by J. Hall Pleasants, former secretary of the Maryland Historical Society, in an article published in 1939. When a retrospective exhibition of Johnson's paintings was held at the Peale Museum in Baltimore nine years later, twenty-five portraits were included. Since that time more than eighty works have been attributed to Johnson. None of Johnson's portraits is actually dated and only one bears his signature. The majority of Johnson's portraits have been assigned dates on the basis of the ages of the sitters, from about 1795 to 1825, and most depict affluent residents of Baltimore. All of the sitters in Johnson's portraits are white with the exception of two unidentified African-American males.
Many of the portraits, though not all, attributed to Johnson are drawn in the same stiff manner, the faces of the sitters in three-quarter view and their gazes straightforward. The backgrounds are usually plain, although some include a tiled floor and an open casement with landscape beyond a curtain. Favorite "stock objects" in Johnson's portraits were letters, books, gloves, parasols, riding crops, dogs, flowers, and fruit. Johnson frequently seated his subjects on upholstered Sheraton chairs or settees studded with brass tacks; as a result he has been called the "brass tack" artist.
In an advertisement placed by Johnson in the Baltimore Intelligencer of December 19, 1798, the artist described himself as a "self-taught" genius. Pleasants suggested that as a student of painting, or, as a slave, Johnson might have received training from some member of the Peale family who dominated Baltimore's art scene during the period of Johnson's activities. Johnson's name does not appear, however, in any of the Peale family's voluminous archives. Johnson's style is closely related to that of Charles Peale Polk (1767–1822, a nephew of the family patriarch Charles Willson Peale) in their mutual fondness for thinly painted surfaces, variety of accessories, and attention to costume details. It is unlikely that Johnson was entirely self-taught. If he did not receive his training from some member of the Peale family, he was at least familiar with their work.
Johnson's Intelligencer advertisement also referred to his "having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies." It seems reasonable to assume that Johnson was making a veiled reference to his race, and alluded to the fact that he had suffered racial and professional discrimination, yet had overcome such odds to some extent. The date and circumstances of Johnson's death are unknown.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)
Joshua Johnson was a portrait painter in Baltimore, Maryland, the earliest African American known to have made a career for himself as an artist. Most American artists of the day struggled to sustain their careers in a nation that valued practicality over luxury. Nevertheless, Johnson worked profitably for over thirty years, painting Baltimore's rising middle class of merchants and importers. Baltimore in this period had a greater number of freedmen than slaves, and it is likely that this climate helped Johnson to achieve what was denied to black Americans elsewhere. In a Baltimore newspaper he proclaimed himself a "self-taught genius [who had] experienced many . . . obstacles in the pursuit of his studies" (Baltimore Intelligencer, December 19, 1798).