Many have questioned his race. For 18th century painter, Joshua Johnson, this was the norm. Considered the earliest documented professional African American painter, Johnson’s legal status has consistently been questioned as well. The descendants of the families he painted portraits for claim Johnson was once enslaved. However, Johnson’s name appeared at the turn of the 18th century in the City Directory of Baltimore, a publication reserved for the free. Still, it is likely that Johnson was biracial and, at times, passing, given his name later appeared in an 1817 directory among “free householders of Color.”
Even so, few questioned his talent. Between 1795 and 1825, Johnson painted many portraits of Baltimore’s rising and wealthy white residents. Apparently, he was successful, given land records from the 1820s show Johnson owning multiple properties in three Maryland counties. So, if he was once enslaved, Johnson, his wife, and three children appeared far from it two decades into the 19th century.
Nonetheless, Johnson had his share of struggles. On December 19, 1798, the popular painter was quoted in the Baltimore Intelligencer, characterizing himself a “self-taught genius” who overcame “many obstacles in the pursuit of his studies.” Some believe this to be a veiled reference to his racial identity and the discrimination he likely endured as a result.
Despite his tribulations, Johnson was able to forge a successful 30-year career as an artist. In the Baltimore Intelligencer article, upon being asked about his productive portrait career, Johnson went on to promote that it is “highly gratifying” to employ superior skills to “execute all commands with an effect, and in a style, which must give satisfaction.”
Johnson, now considered the first professional African American painter, died some time in or after 1826, with few details known about his passing.
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