Among the most vividly colored and exquisitely detailed of Joshua Johnson’s work, this pair of portraits stands as a masterful survival by America’s first African-American professional painter. The girl, with the expanse of her white dress, takes up a large percentage of the canvas area and stares directly at the viewer despite the nearby distractions of a butterfly and dog. Combined with a palette of contrasting colors and highlights in red and pink, this composition heightens the dramatic impact of the likeness. The sitter’s ovoid eyes, fingers thickly outlined in reddish hues and a pointing finger with noticeably wavy tip are hallmarks of Johnson’s style as seen throughout his career while the props and background point more specifically to a date during the first few years of the nineteenth century, possibly slightly earlier. The rose bush and butterfly feature in several of Johnson’s works of children including two with identified sitters, Sarah Maria Coward (1802-1860) and Adelia Ellender (c.1803-after 1841). As these subjects appear to be aged between one and three years, their portraits can be dated between 1803 and 1805. Furthermore, the distinctive white dog with bushy tail appears in four other Johnson portraits. In three of these, dated between 1800 and 1805, the dog sits sideways or away from the viewer. However, the fourth, of Mary Buchanan Smith (1788-1868) painted in 1797-1798, has a frontal view of the dog’s head, as does the portrait offered here, and both feature very similar squared heads with large, round snout-like noses. See Carolyn J. Weekley, Stiles Tuttle Colwill et al., Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter (Williamsburg, VA and Baltimore, 1987), cats. 2, 10, 13, 22, 23, 25; see also, Christie’s New York, 18 January 2019, lots 218-220.
The portrait of the girl is also one of very few by Johnson that includes buildings in the background. In the 1987 catalogue, the most comprehensive study of the artist, only one has such architectural detail. The circa 1804 portrait of Charles Herman Stricker Wilmans (1797-1833) shows two three-bay houses, with the furthest set back. Here, the houses have two bays, are similarly staggered and have an additional long, low building suggestive of a farm setting, possibly illustrating the family home or a country house. See Weekley and Colwill, op. cit., cat. 22 and Baltimore Museum of Art, acc. no. 1944.6.
Like his presumed sister, the boy holds the viewer’s gaze while his left hand holds a nut for his pet squirrel, a scene of arrested play that Joshua Johnson was particularly adept at portraying. The sitter’s dress, pose and props suggest an early nineteenth-century date of production, in keeping with the evidence for the companion portrait of the girl. His left hand has the nut held delicately between the thumb and an outstretched forefinger, the other three fingers curling inward. In execution and layout, this passage is virtually identical to the right hand of Emma van Name as she prepares to eat a strawberry in her circa 1805 portrait now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A popular pet among the well-to-do since Renaissance times through the early nineteenth century, the squirrel in this portrait sits atop a wooden home, and subtle brushworks indicate he or she has a mate inside the box. Johnson’s circa 1804 double portrait of the Rutter children shows the boy in a similar pose. Instead of a squirrel and a nut, the Rutter boy has a bird, but likewise holds its food out to his side and the bird’s “home,” a wooden pole, is also included in the work. See Weekley and Colwill, op. cit., cats. 26, 32).
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).
Little is known of the history of the pair of portraits. Prior to their sale at auction in 1994, the works were in the collection of Dr. Francis Grubar (1924-1992), a specialist in nineteenth-century American paintings and prior to his death, professor emeritus at George Washington University in Washington D.C. As much of his professional career related to more academic artists working later in the century, these portraits by Johnson, perhaps because of their vibrant palette and imagery, must have had a particular appeal.