Portrait artist Joshua Johnson was an important first in the art world. Johnson was reportedly born in Baltimore, Maryland or the French West Indies, to a white father and an enslaved Black mother around 1763. He obtained freedom in 1782 after his biological father acknowledged Johnson as his son. Being declared a free man meant working as a blacksmith’s apprentice.

Following his apprenticeship, Johnson began teaching himself to paint. Multiple records have him registered as a limner and portrait painter between 1796 and 1824. His whereabouts remain scratchy as he reportedly moved around the Baltimore area several times. It was believed he supplemented his income by painting furniture for affluent Baltimoreans. Despite being a Black painter, his subjects were upper-class white citizens. His work became so popular that he painted the area’s most notable families. He advertised his services in the local Baltimore newspaper Intelligencer. Johnson gained credit for doing 13 paintings during his most active period.

Despite his humble beginnings, Johnson’s painting career was fruitful as land records showed he was a property owner in Montgomery, Frederick, and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland around or after 1824. He was reportedly married twice – once to a woman named Sarah, who bore him two sons and a daughter. He later remarried another woman named Clara.

As records from the period are hard to come by, Johnson’s latter years are a mystery. He reportedly passed away in 1826.

Joshua Johnson displayed his talents at a time when most Black people barely had any freedom. This self-taught genius set a precedent for many Black painters and visual artists who continue to follow in his footsteps to this day. Due to a lack of records, many of his contributions to the art world were uncredited until historians started researching his work. However, now is the time to recognize Mr. Johnson for letting the world know that Black artists could leave an indelible mark.

18th century painter Joshua Johnson