February 18, 2007
Enigma: Joshua Johnson's artistic contributions and his status as a free black man intrigue historians
Joshua Johnson, considered by art historians and collectors the first significant black American portrait painter, lived and painted in Baltimore during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
While much of his work has survived and is in major collections, Johnson himself remains somewhat of an enigma. How he spelled his name, or if he was even black, have been open to speculation.
His name appears in city directories between 1795 and 1825, listed as Johnson or Johnston. In the 1816-1817 directory, there is a Joshua Johnson, a painter and "Free Householder of Colour." In the federal census of 1810, he is listed as a free black man.
Stiles T. Colwill, a former Maryland Historical Society curator, spent 10 years with Colonial Williamsburg's Carolyn J. Weekley researching the painter's life.
Their work culminated in a 1987 exhibition of 44 of Johnson's works at a Historical Society exhibition, and added to research begun during the 1920s by Dr. J. Hall Pleasants.
Scholars think Johnson was probably born in the 1760s in the West Indies, and as a child was a slave or servant to Robert Polk, brother-in-law of artist Charles Willson Peale. Records suggest that Johnson later came to Baltimore in the 1790s to be a house servant for Charles Peale Polk, also an artist. It is thought that Polk gave Johnson his freedom as well as teaching him painting.
"There has to be a connection to the Peales, who obviously were a great influence on him," Colwill says. "However, he remains largely a self-taught painter."
Indeed, such Peale trademarks as the way subjects are posed, the positioning of their hands, and the use of raised curtains and open windows revealing elaborate backgrounds are replicated in Johnson's work.
In the style of the day, Johnson's figures sit or stand stiffly, mouths tight, eyes forward. A book or letter in the hand of a man often indicated social status, while women and children hold flowers or fruit, indicating fertility.
While primarily painting wealthy or bourgeois Baltimoreans, Johnson's work also found favor among members of Baltimore's Abolitionist Society.
While no known self-portrait or other image of Johnson exists, he did paint two portraits of black men: "Unidentified Gentleman" and "Daniel Coker." both completed between 1805 and 1810. One is in the Bowdoin College collection; the other in the American Museum in Bath, England.
Johnson, whose studio once stood where the Mechanic Theatre stands today, once placed an advertisement in the Baltimore Intelligencer announcing that he was ready to receive commissions:
"He takes liberty 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."
Johnson's work can be found locally in the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Peale Museum and the Maryland Historical Society. It also can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Colonial Williamsburg, the Corcoran Gallery, the National Gallery and the Newark (N.J.) Museum. Actor Bill Cosby owns three Johnson paintings.
Colwill estimates that Johnson, who painted for 25 years in Baltimore, probably executed 200 to 300 paintings. To date, 110 have been identified.
"They still keep turning up and I must get two or three letters a year from people inquiring about his work," Colwill says. "At auction, a Johnson original can bring $4,500 to $100,000."
Johnson died in 1830; the exact location of his burial place is unknown.
--Frederick N. Rasmussen
Originally published May 9, 1998
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