With young subjects, a vivid palette and delightful details, the four portraits in lots 1218 to 1220 are a delightful and extremely rare discovery of the work of America’s first professional African American portrait painter, Joshua Johnson (c. 1763-after 1824). All four feature a background comprised primarily of a flowering bush while the two in the pair offered here also include a butterfly, details that based on a comparison to Johnson’s other works, indicate they were made in the early years of the nineteenth century when the artist was at the prime of his career. For the 1987-1988 exhibition, Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter, the catalogue authors recorded three portraits by Johnson with a similar background and butterfly, all of which are now in public collections. Two of these have identified sitters, Sarah Maria Coward (1802-1860) and Adelia Ellender (c.1803-after 1841) (fig. 1) and thus can be dated between 1803 and 1805. Titled In the Garden, the third related portrait in the exhibition depicts an unidentified girl and since 1988, at least two other portraits, both also with unidentified subjects, with flowering bushes and a butterfly have sold at auction. In all these portraits, the children point toward the butterfly, a gesture whose meaning is not clear. One possibility, as noted in the catalogue for the above exhibition, is that the butterfly was a Christian symbol. Representing resurrection after the cocoon stage, butterflies are depicted alongside Christ in 16th and 17th century European works and its presence in Johnson’s portraits may reference the resurrection of all men (Carolyn J. Weekley, Stiles Tuttle Colwill et al., Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter (Williamsburg, VA and Baltimore, 1987), pp. 114-115, 119-121, cats. 17, 23, 25; Christie’s New York, 21-22 January 1994, lot 218; Skinner, 18 February 2007, lot 164).
Additional details—in technique, execution and composition—clearly illustrate the work of Joshua Johnson. In all four portraits, the shaping of the children’s ovoid eyes, small mouths, fingers thickly outlined in reddish hues and red shoes, are all seen with great frequency in Johnson’s portraits of children. Furthermore, in the portrait of the girl in the lot offered here, the index finger has a noticeably wavy tip, an individualistic rendering that is also seen in several of Johnson’s portraits, including that of Adelia Ellender (fig. 1). Mirror images of each other, the poses in the pair offered here are similar to that of the unidentified girl whose portrait sold at Skinner in 2007 (cited above), with outstretched arm bent at the elbow and pointing downward and other arm hanging straight down.
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 Stiles, op. cit., pp. 47-67).
In all likelihood, the four portraits offered here have descended together in the family of the sitters for over two hundred years. They can be traced back as heirlooms inherited by Susanna (Wilcox) Dietrich (1873-1962), the great-grandmother of the current owner and almost certainly depict her ancestors, most likely one of her grandparents and his or her siblings. While little is known of her maternal grandparents, James St. Lawrence Perry and Anna (Ann) Sophia Buckley, and her paternal grandmother has not been identified, her paternal grandfather, William Littleton Wilcox (1804-1881) may be the sitter in the portrait of a boy offered in the current lot or perhaps in lot 1220. He was the son of Thomas Wilcox and Nancy Littleton and in the 1810 census, their household included two boys under 10 years old, one girl under 10 and one girl aged 10-16, which could reflect the four children in the portraits if the child in lot 1220 is male. Furthermore, Thomas Wilcox married secondly in 1808 Ann Baker. Her name is fairly common, but it is also the name of the mother of Sarah Maria Coward, whose portrait Phillips painted in circa 1804. As marriage dates, directories and census records seem to preclude the possibility of this being the same woman, it may indicate a genealogical tie between the Coward and Wilcox families. Although Thomas Wilcox lived in Dorchester, Maryland and cannot be placed in Baltimore during the time these portraits were executed, William Littleton Wilcox was in Baltimore by 1831 where he lived on North Gay Street, the same street where Joshua Johnson lived from c.1803-1809. If Wilcox is one of the sitters, the portraits presumably passed down to his son and namesake, William Littleton Wilcox (1838-1910) and then to his daughter Susanna (Susan) Helen Wilcox who in 1898 married Andrew Jackson Dietrich (1864-1943), all of whom lived in Baltimore.