Who was Folk Painter Joshua Johnson?

Joshua Johnson was the earliest documented professional African-American painter, born into slavery by a white slave owner, George Johnson, and a black slave woman owned by a William Wheeler, Sr. Unfortunately, his mother’s name is unknown. His father purchased him from Wheeler for about $34, half the average price of a male slave field hand at the time. Under the conditions that he either turned 21 or became an apprentice of a blacksmith, whichever came first, Joshua was freed from the bonds of slavery, threw himself into his painting profession and lived the majority of his life in the Baltimore, Maryland area. Some say he was a self-taught artist, while others seem to think he may have received some sort of instruction from the artistic members of the Peale family, of which his work closely resembles and who we know he admired. Either way, he certainly earned his place in the art market of the time, and created a comfortable life for himself, his wife Sarah, and their 3 (or 4) children.

Baltimore Shipowner and his wife, framed canvas prints hanging in a dining room

He referred to himself “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.” — Joshua Johnson quoted in Advertisement, “Portrait Painting,” Baltimore Intelligencer, 19 Dec. 1798.

Family Group Print by Joshua Johnson
Family Group by Joshua Johnson

Johnson’s work was as a portrait painter, or “limner” as he was then labeled, and he documented the appearance of many upper class, white Baltimore merchants and their families. He frequently used props such as fruit, books, flowers, pets and gloves in his paintings. Often his sitters were in Sheraton chairs with brass tack linings, causing him to sometimes be referred to as the “brass tack” artist. His naive or “folk” style has landed him in not only our African American Artist category but also our ever-so-popular, Primitive & Folk Art gallery.

We are delighted to carry on the legacy of Joshua Johnson, and to bring African American art history to the forefront of today’s art scene. Be sure to view the rest of Joshua Johnson’s work available as prints on canvas, paper, poster & cards.

Happy shopping!

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