This portrait of an elegant and distinguished woman is a superb example of the work of Joshua Johnson, the first professional African American portrait painter. While she is unidentified, it is likely that she was an important member of Maryland society. Johnson depicts her with a prim and proper pose that is reminiscent of many of his portraits of other well-to-do Baltimore ladies. She displays almond-shaped eyes and pursed lips separated by a think line, signature details of Johnson’s work. Exaggerated by her updo and head scarf, her ovoid shaped head is also very characteristic of the artist’s style. Her curls are distinctly Johnson with their fine, stringy quality. Most striking is Johnson’s rendering of lace. He achieves a transparent quality and delicacy that is rarely seen in non-academic portraiture. Johnson’s hand is evident in the think outlines used to emphasize the folds in her collar and bow and his use of props and details such as the open book and jewelry can be found in many of his other portraits. Physically, the paint is applied very thinly to the canvas of this piece which is consistent with Johnson’s methods. (Carolyn J. Weekley, Stiles Tuttle Colwill et al., Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter (Williamsburg, VA and Baltimore, 1987), pp. 60-62.)
His work identified by J. Hall Pleasants in 1939, Joshua Johnson remains an enigmatic figure. Family histories and a listing as a “free coloured person” in the 1816/7 Baltimore City Directory indicated that he was African American but his background was unknown until the 1990s when newly discovered court records revealed his mixed-race heritage. The records include a 1764 bill of sale from William Wheeler to George Johnson (Johnston) for a “mulatto boy named Joshua” and a 1782 manumission order for Joshua Johnson that reveals his age at the time as “upwards of Nineteen Years” and that he was the son of his owner, George Johnson. In 1782, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith but little is known of his life until 1796, when he is listed as a portrait painter in the Baltimore City Directory. Two years later, he placed his first advertisement, in which he noted that he was a “self-taught genius.” Additional advertisements and directories indicate his various addresses until 1824, after which there is no record of his life (Jennifer Bryan and Robert Torchia, “The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson,” Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 36, no. 2 (1996), pp. 2-7; Carolyn J. Weekley, “Who Was Joshua Johnson?” in Weekley and Colwill, op. cit., pp. 47-67).
For more on Joshua Johnson, see lots 122 and 132.