Portrait of an African American Man. ca 1805

Girl Wearing a Bonnet, c.1810. 

Who was Joshua Johnson? For one thing, a man deeply aggrieved. “Having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies," he writes of himself in the third person, in a Baltimore newspaper.

"Insuperable obstacles" – a clear allusion to racism and discrimination. You can hear across the centuries a man's indignation, wounded pride, rage. And yet, he persevered and he prevailed. Johnson (ca 1763-1830) was the first man of color in the US to make a living as an artist. How much confidence, not to say sheer will, did it take for a former slave in the late 18th c. in America to become a professional artist? We can get a sense of that from a full quote of Johnson's Advertisement, "Portrait Painting," in the Baltimore Intelligencer, 19 Dec. 1798:

“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."

Johnson was active in the Baltimore area in the late 18th and early 19th c., creating portraits of the planter class and local gentry in a naif style akin to that of the local Peale artistic clan, Charles Willson Peale et al. (His work has close similarities to that of Charles Peale Polk, nephew of the better known CWP.)

The most recent research suggest that Johnson was most likely the son of a white man (George Johnson/Johnston) and an enslaved, unnamed black woman owned by a William Wheeler, and that he was born a slave and freed at age 18, in 1782. (Biographical details are scarce.)

Some eighty works have been attributed to Johnson, most depicting prominent residents of Baltimore and Maryland. All of the sitters are white save for two African-American males. 

(The above post is based on scholarship by Regenia A. Perry (Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, 1992), and by Jennifer Bryan and Robert Torchia “The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson,” 1994.)