African American Artists

The first African American artist to earn a living painting was Joshua Johnson.  Johnson was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and enjoyed a prolific career that spanned the thirty years from 1796 to 1825.

One of the first professional African American artists, Johnson’s specialty was portraiture.  Local shopkeepers, merchants, and ship captains in the Baltimore area most often commissioned his works.  He is credited with painting more portraits of Maryland’s children and their parents than any other artist during that time.

As was the case with other African American artists of the time, Johnson was not formally trained in painting or art.  Instead, he was self taught as a painter but was formally employed as a blacksmith during his young adulthood.

Details of the lives of many African American artists of this era were not recorded but what is known about Johnson is quite remarkable.  Born a slave in 1763, he was the son of a white man and black woman.  Johnson’s white father purchased him from his mother’s owner when he was just an infant.

The Maryland Historical Society documents Johnson’s freedom in 1782, when he was 20 and apprenticing as a blacksmith.  Later he became the highly acclaimed portrait artist as a free man and is listed in Baltimore’s city directories as a portrait painter and limner from 1796 until 1824.

In 1807, John Westwood, a prominent stagecoach manufacturer, commissioned Johnson to paint a portrait of his three sons.  This portrait, The Westwood Children, is part of the current collection of African American artists on display in the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC.

One of at least 80 portraits attributed to Johnson, The Westwood Children has been on public exhibition almost continuously since 1948 at various galleries and museums across the nation.  It was included in a traveling exhibition based upon the lives of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  The exhibition’s tour took the portrait to venues in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the United States and, in Europe, was displayed in Paris, London, and Warsaw.

Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, who bought it in 1955 from descendents of the youngest child in the painting, presented the portrait as a gift to the NGA in 1959.

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