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Johnson portrait of Abner Coker
*The birth of Joshua Johnson in c.1763 is celebrated on this date. He was a Black artist (painter).
Joshua Johnson was from the Baltimore area of African and white-European ancestry. The son of George Johnson, a white man, and a black slave woman whose name was undocumented. His father purchased his son from his mother’s owner for 25 pounds and promised to free him on his 21st birthday or upon completing an apprenticeship to a blacksmith.
Joshua Johnson was freed in 1782 and was listed shortly after as a portrait painter in the Baltimore city directories. As a free black artist, he worked in Baltimore for over 30 years, from 1795 to 1824. During decades of dramatic growth in Baltimore, Johnson produced more than 80 portraits of sea captains, shopkeepers, and merchants. By accepting commissions from Baltimore’s newly affluent families, Johnson produced portraits in oil in the years before the camera was invented. No other artist except Johnson in Maryland painted so many portraits of parents with their children during this period.
Although much about the people who posed for his paintings is known, not much is known about Joshua Johnson. Few clues survive to help us piece together his life and career puzzle. Like most of Baltimore’s free black community members, he remains elusive. Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore had a large population of free Blacks. By 1810, free blacks outnumbered enslaved Blacks by two to one. Joshua Johnson died in 1832.