Artist Spotlight: Joshua Johnson

Top Image: “Portrait of Mrs. Barbara Baker Murphy (Wife of Sea Captain)”, ca. 1810

Joshua Johnson (or Johnston) was a painter born in 1763. There have been several speculations about his origins, including if he was even African American at all. Though there were no records of him being a former slave, many scholars believe that Johnson was biracial and was fair enough to be mistakenly classified as not African American. 

“Portrait of Sea Captain John Murphy“, ca. 1810.

As a painter, Johnson markets himself as a self-taught artist, though it is possible that he still received some sort of training from the Peale family, who dominated the art scene in Baltimore where Johnson resides. His portrait paintings are flat, stiff, contained detailed clothing, and almost always facing the same way. This is reminiscent of the style of Charles Peale Polk, which leads to the possibility that Johnston was very familiar with his work and might have based his style on him.

Nevertheless, Johnson is the first recorded African American to become a professional painter, with many following his footsteps to this day.

“Sarah Ogden Gustin”, c. 1805.
“Grace Allison McCurdy (Mrs. Hugh McCurdy) and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace”, c. 1806.

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