Born into Slavery, Joshua Johnson Became One of the First African-American Artists to Earn a Living as a Portraitist
Learn more about this work, which we placed into the Met's collection
By Beth Hamilton
Joshua Johnson is an elusive figure in the history of American art. Scant evidence about his early life and background exist and he was only rediscovered during the 1930s. Decades of research into the oral histories of his sitters’ descendants, and Federal-era Baltimore city records have revealed a glimpse into an intriguing life. Recently uncovered documents have put many questions to rest, mainly his status as a black man.
Johnson was born around 1763 in Baltimore to a white man and a black slave. He was enslaved as a child and freed in 1782, after which he apprenticed with a blacksmith. From around 1789 to 1825 Johnson worked as a portrait artist in the city. He is the earliest documented African-American to earn his living as a portraitist, with a known body of work totaling nearly eighty paintings. The paintings attributed to Johnson are entirely portraits, many depicting children. His subjects were middle and upper class patrons of Baltimore eager to have their likeness recorded for future generations. Johnson was active during a self-conscious era as the country developed a unique identity as an independent nation. Portraiture was a tool to establish one’s place in Post-Revolutionary America.
Stylistic similarities between Johnson and Charles Peale Polk contributed to the long-held belief that Johnson was a protege of the Peale family. Johnson advertised himself as being self-taught, but he would have been familiar with the Peale family of artists through their proximity in Baltimore. Johnson’s work bears the hallmarks of early American folk portraiture: flatness in form, simplicity, bold colors, and a skewed sense of scale and proportion. The present work is a remarkable example of Johnson’s ability to create a captivating image through expression, color, and detail. The young girl is painted in a stiff and direct manner; she stands at full length at the center of the canvas and gazes at the viewer with an expressive pose. The flatness of her form is enhanced by the meticulous handling of details in the dress, accessories, and props in the scene.
The young girl has been identified as Emma Van Name, which may be a distortion of the Van Noemer surname known to exist in Baltimore at the turn of the nineteenth century. The girl wears an ethereal and lacy overlay on top of a pink dress and a ruffled bonnet. Careful attention is given to the delicacy of the dress material and embroidered patterning. The jewelry worn denotes her status and probably served to demonstrate the prominence of her family. The young girl is adorned with a coral beaded necklace and bar pins on the sleeves of her dress. Coral necklaces were fashionable accessories in Colonial America and continued to be worn into the 19th century. Coral, an exotic export material, was a talismanic device believed to protect young children during a period with high infant mortality rates. Also around her neck is a gold-cloth chain that suspends a teething whistle, a common christening gift within wealthy families. The silver whistle and bells ends with a coral rod that was used to soothe a child’s gums.
The young girl raises a strawberry to her mouth and reaches with her other hand into the enormous glass goblet filled with the bright red fruit. The red accent in the composition was a color device used by Johnson in many portraits for its dramatic effect. Johnson often painted children holding a bunch of stemmed strawberries, which may symbolize the vibrancy of youth. The spare, darkened background with an open, curtained window were also frequent settings for Johnson’s sitters. Johnson’s portraits of individuals, children, and families are in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Chrysler Museum, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many others.
Cover image: Joshua Johnson, American, active 1790-1825. Little Girl in Pink with Goblet Filled with Strawberries: A Portrait of Emma van Name (detail), c. 1805. Oil on canvas. 29 x 23 inches