Though questions about his identity and whether or not certain works should be attributed to him remain, Joshua Johnston (1765-1830) is considered to be the first African American portrait artist of distinction.
Joshua Johnston may or may not have been the first African American artist of distinction, and conflicting evidence about his identity, race, and work continue to exist. Many unsigned late eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth century family portraits are attributed to him. Nonetheless, a man in post-colonial Baltimore named Joshua Johnson or Johnston was listed in directories of the time and who, on at least two occasions, advertised himself as a portraitist. This man has since been assigned credit for a body of work and is universally included in histories of African-American art.
The existence of Joshua Johnston was first suggested by J. Hall Pleasants, a retired doctor and a nationally recognized expert on Colonial artists from Maryland. In the 1940s, Pleasants began investigating long-circulating stories among prominent Maryland society that a slave had painted the portraits of several of their ancestors. The story had been passed down for several generations without any documentation. Many families said the painter had been black. According to one story, the slave had belonged to a well known artist of the period, and that his name was William Johnson. Pleasants searched old directories of Baltimore, and although he didn't find any William Johnsons, he did find an 1817 listing for Joshua Johnston, described as a portrait painter in the section for "free householders of colour."
This information further piqued Pleasant's curiosity, since he thought he had known of all the painters of that period. Pleasants eventually concluded that Johnston was most likely the painter of a series of portraits that were stylistically similar, of which the artist had never been identified. Previously, the painter was referred to simply as the "brass tacks artist" because his paintings often featured furniture upholstered with brass tacks.
Over the next several years, Pleasants identified 34 paintings he felt could be attributed to Johnston, and in 1942 he published an article in the Maryland Historical Magazine called, "Joshua Johnston, the First Black American Portrait Painter?" In 1940, Life magazine sparked furthered interest in Johnston when it published a portrait attributed to him. The publicity from that article led to the discovery of four more paintings believed to be Johnston's.
In 1948, the Peale Museum in Baltimore held an exhibition of 23 paintings attributed to Johnston, and by the time of Pleasant's death in 1957, he had "identified" 50 paintings done by the artist. Over the next two decades, the mystery of Joshua Johnston continued, and in 1973 an auction in Washington sold three paintings assigned to Johnston for $31,000. The high prices were a result of the belief that Johnston was black, making the works historically significant. In Baltimore, a prominent art historian and friend of Pleasants wrote an essay published in the Baltimore Evening Sun challenging anyone to prove that either Johnston was black or that he was, in fact, the artist of these works. Three years later, half of this challenge was answered: documentary evidence revealed that Johnston actually did paint the works attributed to him.
The proof came with the discovery of a will from Mrs. Thomas Everette, the wife of a wealthy Baltimore businessman, who had a family portrait done by the brass tacks artist. In her will, she left the painting to her daughter, claiming that it had been painted by J. Johnson. With this documentation, art historians were able to establish which works of the Johnston canon were stylistically similar enough to be his. While the Everette will established that the brass tacks artist was Joshua Johnston, it did nothing to establish his race, which remains a mystery.
In the mid-1980s, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center began a major study of the issue of Johnston's race. Running the study was Carolyn Weekely, the curator of the center. Her study focused on the family stories that had first interested Pleasants nearly four decades earlier. The Weekely study focused on the idea that Johnston was West Indian. This theory would explain the racial ambiguity from the Baltimore directories that Pleasants had first uncovered. In one, Joshua Johnston is listed as a "free householder of colour." Yet in an 1800 census, Johnston is listed as a free white householder and that his household consisted of his immediate family and, importantly, a free black. An obvious conclusion would be that Johnston, if he was in fact black, was so light skinned that he could pass for white, and at times did. This further supports the West Indies theory, because in the West Indies, racial inter-mixing was far more common than in colonial America.
The study never uncovered any definitive documentation as to Johnston's race, but it did raise some interesting new possibilities, the most significant of which was that Johnston was a French-speaking slave inherited as a young boy by Charles Wilson Peale, a prominent Baltimore portraitist and outspoken abolitionist. According to this theory, for which there is almost no documentation, Peale may have inherited the young Johnston from his brother-in-law and employed him as his assistant. As such, Johnston would have been exposed to the art of portraiture as it was practiced at the time. The Weekely study went to great lengths to show that Johnston's style was very much similar to that of Peale's. This theory has detractors, though, who point out that Peales kept extensive diaries and never once mentioned a Joshua Johnston or any artist apprentice.
Adding to the Johnston mystery is that he managed to pass unknown into history in the first place. There is no mention of him by any of the many Baltimore artists of the time, about which a great deal is known. Pleasants himself knew nothing of Johnston, and he was the greatest living expert on Colonial Maryland artists. Had he not been a portrait artist, this anonymity might be explainable, but painting portraits is a socially orientied art; it is often mentioned, and requires, that an artist be well known among a wide circle of people. Surely, if Johnston had been a black man, mention of this would have been made by someone. Of course, research in this area has been limited to a very few studies and it is hoped that in the future the truth about Joshua Johnston can be uncovered.
Bearden, Romare, A History of African American Artists, from 1792 to the present, Pantheon Books, 1993.
Fine, Elsa Honig, "A Search for Identity," in The Afro-American Artists, Hacker Art Books, 1982.
Samella, Lewis, Art: African American, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.