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Joshua Johnston Biography

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Portrait painter (c. 1763-1832)

Joshua Johnston is regarded as the first African American portrait painter in the United States.

His mother was a slave. Court records of 1782, held by the Maryland Historical Society, show that Joshua Johnson, a slave in Baltimore County was apprenticed to a blacksmith. His Caucasian father, George Johnson, bought his freedom. The record orders that Joshua be freed at the end of his apprenticeship or when he reached his twentieth birthday, whichever came first. There are no further records about Joshua Johnson as a blacksmith.

The Baltimore residential directories between 1796 and 1824 list Joshua Johnston as either a portrait painter or limner.

The majority of Johnston’s portraits are of members of aristocratic white families. His Portrait of a Cleric (c. 1805) is of an African American man. Johnston did not sign or date his paintings. Those attributed to him have the same stylistic traits.