Black Artists in History: Joshua Johnson

Joshua Johnson (c. 1765 – 1830) is documented as being the first working black portrait artist during the early 19th century. Very little is known about his personal life outside of his paintings. What is known, is that he was a slave up until his late teens, after which he began to promote himself as a portrait and ornamental painter. Hailing from the Baltimore, MD area, many of Johnson’s commissioned portraits were of prominent Maryland figures.

Though noted as a self-taught artist, Johnson’s style has been compared to Charles Peale Polk, another well-known Maryland painter at the time. His portraits often depicted multiple figures in the composition, usually family group portraits, sitting or standing in stiff poses with shallow shading and perspective. I’m sure many of us wouldn’t think much of this now, but believe it or not this style of painting was actually quite popular at the time! The fact that Joshua Johnson did group portraits was particularly significant because it was considered rare during that time.

Several of Johnson’s pieces are owned by DC’s own National Gallery of Art. His most noted painting, The Westwood Children, is currently on view with the gallery’s American 19th Century art collection.

**My Thoughts: For the first entry in this series I wanted to write about a portrait artist, since I have a heart for that myself. But I have to say, screw Facebook and LinkedIn, this dude must’ve had his social network game on lock! From slavery to getting paid to paint the elite!?? This is an old school example of “hustlin.”

Photo credit: National Gallery of Art

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