Although he is the best documented of all the eighteenth African-American artists, Joshua Johnston remains a shadowy painter at best. He was listed in the Baltimore Directory as a portrait painter from l796-1824. Following his death his works were credited to other artists. It has taken massive research for many years to uncover two dozen or more of his paintings.
Thanks to the work of the late Dr. J. Hall Pleasants of the Maryland Historical Society, one can draw a vague portrait of Joshua Johnston that he was a “Free Householder of Colour we know, and that he was first a slave, who later gained his freedom, perhaps earning it through his work as a painter. His work strongly suggests the influence of Charles Peale Polk, a very active portrait painter in Baltimore in the l790’s. Tradition in the Moale family, whose portraits he painted, makes him a slave of Colonel John Moale, who lived on German Street in Baltimore. At one time the artist is listed as living on the same street, which gives truth to this story.
Johnston moved frequently and lived at a number of colorful addresses, such as Primrose Alley and Strawberry Lane. He must have been successful when we consider the number of known paintings done by him for wealthy Baltimore families. This indicates exceptional talent when we realize that he must have been self-taught.
Johnston was a primitive painter. His work has a two-dimensional quality and his subjects posed somewhat still and formal poses. However, the simplicity of his style has certain innocent charm.
In all of Johnston’s portraits, the poses are similar. The figures have expressionless, pudgy hands and are holding an object. Since the same things appear in different paintings, they were likely props owned and used by the artist. In fact, two different members of the Bankson family are pictured wearing the same earrings.
While sittings may have taken place in the artist’s studio, it is possible that the props were kept and painted in without the sitter’s presences. The faces may have been done separately at the subject’s home. Such devices were frequently used by portrait painters to save the sitter’s time.
Brass-studded Sheraton sofas and chairs are used frequently in Johnston’s paintings. It has been solemnized that this “metallic rhythmic use of nails” is an Africanism. However, this seems far-fetched. Had the nails been inserted into the canvas there might be a clearer relationship but since they are merely painted on it is more likely these are the artist’s props.
Several other features make repeated appearances in Johnson’s paintings-baskets of strawberries or cherries, a letter, book or map; the same tassel; and a peculiar fuzzy white dog, with a pig like face.