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Sat, 11.26.1763

A first in Black Portrait Art, Joshua Johnson

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 on the completion of 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 – 1824. Painting 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 a great deal about the people who posed for his paintings is known, not much is known about Joshua Johnson himself. Few clues survive to help us piece together the puzzle of his life and career. Like most members of Baltimore’s free Black community, he remains an elusive figure. Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore had a large population of free Blacks. By 1810, free Blacks outnumbered enslaved Blacks by more than two to one.  Joshua Johnson died in 1832.

No further records appear about Joshua Johnson the blacksmith, but in 1796 the Baltimore City Directory has an entry for Joshua Johnson the portrait painter.  To see some of Joshua Johnson’s paintings, come to the Maryland Historical Society. We have several of his paintings in our permanent collection.  Johnson dies in 1824, he is often viewed as the first black in America to make a living as an artist, is known for his naïve paintings of prominent Maryland residents.

To be an Artist

Reference:

Art History Project

Donald Juedes:
Librarian for Art History, Milton S Eisenhower Library of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218-2683, djuedes@jhu.edu

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