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  • Joshua Johnson

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Printed text of the bill of sale and manumission for Joshua Johnson

[End Page 1012]

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Bill of sale and manumission for Joshua Johnson


Courtesy of Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore

[End Page 1013]

Joshua Johnson has been described, according to Jennifer Bryan and Robert Torchia, as "America's first-known black artist, the mysterious portraitist Joshua Johnson, who was active from 1790 to 1825" (Archives of American Art Journal 36.2). But who was Joshua Johnson? That is not a simple question, but it is one that we cannot, at this time, give a fulsome answer—what for the lack of authentic documents verifying and recounting more of his life and work in Maryland, particularly in Baltimore City. "Johnson's existence," continue Bryan and Torchia,

was unknown until 1939, when Baltimore genealogist and art historian J. Hall Pleasants attributed thirteen paintings to him and attempted to reconstruct his career on the basis of fragmentary and often contradictory information. Pleasants characterized Johnson as a "nebulous figure," and he has remained so over the last fifty-eight years, despite numerous exhibitions and articles devoted to him.

"Who was Joshua Johnson?" is not an inane question to pose, nor is it a simple question to answer about an African descendant who was born into slavery in the South, where very few records of enslaved people were created and maintained of them as human beings. Such an effort would have threatened the white enslavers' project: to dominate and control captured and enslaved Africans, by any means necessary, to reinvent the Africans and their descendants as chattel that serve at the command and whims of their enslavers. And to do so would deprive the Africans and their descendants of their agency, their self-hood, their humanity, for the benefit of white people. Beyond bills of sale and property inventories, then, where can a researcher find information about an ex-enslaved American? It was into such a slave-owning society that Joshua Johnson was born and lived in Maryland all of his life. Only recently have a number of academics, through trial and error, been able to pull together from disparate and multiple sources enough facts to create a reliable sketch of Joshua Johnson, who, as a "freed slave" and a mulatto, has emerged as a significant portrait painter, whose talent attracted a number of wealthy white merchants and members of the thriving planter class to create their likenesses on canvas. To have their likeness represented on canvas became a not so subtle symbol of their financial and social achievements. And Joshua Johnson, as one of or perhaps the only portrait painter living full-time in Baltimore, readily obliged them, thus earning enough money to support himself and his family.

Although records show that Joshua Johnson was born into slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1763, we only have a few scattered facts about him and his origins. We know even less about his mother, an unnamed black woman, owned as chattel by a William Wheeler, Sr. In 1764, Wheeler sold Joshua Johnson to his birth father, a white man named George Johnson, who would in turn "free" his son from bondage eighteen years later in 1782. But before he freed his son from enslavement, George Johnson apprenticed him to the blacksmith William Forepaugh, "a member of the Mechanical Company of Baltimore in the mid-1760s." "After [Joshua] Johnson completed his apprenticeship to Forepaugh," Bryan and Torchia continue,

his activities and whereabouts are unknown. As a freeman he certainly could have been an itinerant portraitist during the 1790s, and it is generally believed that he painted Sarah Ogden Gustin in Berkeley Springs, (West) Virginia, sometime between 1798 and 1802. [End Page 1014]

How Joshua Johnson came to the profession of portrait painting we do not know, which was apparently for him a successful career, during which he created over 200 portraits of wealthy whites merchants and landowners and possibly more.

In December 19, 1798, Joshua Johnson advertised himself in the Baltimore Intelligencer as a portrait painter, part of which states the following:

As a self-taught genius, deriving from...


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