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Joshua Johnson

(fl. c. 1796—1824)


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(active c. 1795–1824).

Painter. The first documented African-American professional artist, he worked as a portrait painter for a well-to-do Baltimore clientele. Only two representations of black subjects are known. Employing limited technical skills within current Anglo-American conventions, Johnson often achieved charming effects, particularly in rendering women and children. Their prim demeanor and doll-like immobility suit his attention to decorative detail and pattern. Johnson's sitters reveal little character, but their social aspirations and his artistic ambitions are evident in his attempts to emulate sophisticated contemporary standards. Among the more than eighty surviving paintings attributed to his hand, an unusually high percentage depict children, and a number tackle the difficulties of showing a family group. Evidence about almost every aspect of Johnson's life remains open to question. Contradictions even undermine the prevailing view that he was black; he might have been a mulatto whose light skin created confusion about his racial ancestry. In any event, Johnson probably came from the West Indies, possibly Haiti. Following his liberation from slavery, he lived as a free black in Baltimore, where he was listed as a painter in the city directory between 1796 and 1824. Stylistic affinities with the work of Charles Willson Peale suggest that Johnson may have studied with him or with some member of that extended artistic clan. In any event, he must have been familiar with examples of their work commissioned by families of the Baltimore area.

Subjects: Art.


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