Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore

April 17 – October 24, 2021

Groh Gallery


Joshua Johnson, Portrait of Susanna Amos Yoe and Daughter Mary Elizabeth, 1809. Oil on canvas. 35.5"h x 29"w. Collection of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

Joshua Johnson, Portrait of Susanna Amos Yoe and Daughter Mary Elizabeth, 1809. Oil on canvas. 35.5″h x 29″w. Collection of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

This exhibition, organized by the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, brings together the work of Joshua Johnson (ca. 1763-1824) for the first time since 1988. Often considered the first professional African-American artist, Johnson was a freed slave who achieved a remarkable degree of success as a portraitist in his lifetime by painting affluent patrons in his native Baltimore. Johnson’s subjects consisted of politicians, doctors, clergymen, merchants, and sea captains. Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore contextualizes Johnson both historically and culturally and explores further the key forms of natural symbolism represented in his paintings. This exhibition will feature works by Johnson and his contemporaries. Key loans come from the Maryland Center for History & Culture, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. This exhibition will also include a scholarly interpretive catalogue and will feature a diverse range of related educational programs. As the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts’ featured summer/early autumn exhibition Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore will be on view from April 17– October, 24, 2021.

An artist whose ancestry was both African and European, Johnson was primarily a self-taught painter. He was especially adept at capturing his sitters’ physiognomic features and the details of their clothing which offered subtle insights into their personalities. Johnson’s attention to detail and extensive inclusion of moths, fruits, and flowers in his paintings indicate that he carefully absorbed many techniques and motifs from traditional European portraiture to create symbolic meaning. Furthermore, the artist combined these elements with the latest trends in his genre, and he responded closely to work of the Peales, Charles Peale Polk, and Mid-Atlantic limners such as Frederick Kemmelmeyer and Caleb Boyle.

This exhibition is generously supported by grants from the following: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) Foundation, an anonymous donor, Mr. & Mrs. James N. Holzapfel, Dr. & Mrs. George E. Manger, the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area (part of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority), Maryland Marketing Partnership, Community Foundation of Washington County MD, Inc., Dr. & Mrs. Robert S. Strauch, and Mr. & Mrs. Thomas B. Riford.

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