David Johnson was born in 1827 in New York City, where his career was centered for most of his life. Although he claimed to be self-taught, it is now known that beginning in 1845 he studied for two years in the antique school of the National Academy of Design, where his classmates included future landscape colleagues Frederic Church, Sanford R. Gifford, and George Inness. In addition, he later received limited instruction from Jasper Cropsey, and probably, his older brother Joseph, a sometime portrait painter. By the end of that decade, Johnson was making sketching trips in the Catskill mountains. His first dated landscape was completed in 1848.
Throughout the next decades, he traveled in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Virginia, executing modest, thinly painted landscapes characterized by careful construction, meticulous naturalism, and an avoidance of dramatic effects. His election as an associate, and then full member of the National Academy came in 1860 and 1861. Johnson's paintings--forest interiors, views in ravines, quiescent lake scenes, and large tree studies--were usually shown at the Academy or the Brooklyn Art Association, although he also sent works to exhibitions in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Utica, New York. Still, his career was conducted largely outside of the public spotlight. The only element of professional controversy occurred in 1874, when he served on the three-person Hanging Committee to select works for the Academy's annual exhibition. The committee rejected several paintings by John La Farge, who, insulted, pressed for the rights of Academicians to guaranteed acceptance. The conservative backlash to this discussion was one of a series of events which led to the founding of the Society of American Artists by disgruntled younger painters.
In later years, Johnson's style occasionally broadened, leading to recent speculation about an undocumented European trip. (He is known to have owned a number of works by lesser European Barbizon artists, and was called "the American Rousseau.") The paintings of Johnson were never immensely popular, however, and a sale of his work in 1890 at the Fifth Avenue Art Galleries appears to indicate a certain financial duress. In 1894, following a period of dwindling output, he gave up the YMCA studio he had occupied for over two decades. Although he continued to paint, ten years later he retired to Walden, New York, where he died in 1908. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Baur, John I.H. "'...the exact brushwork of Mr. David Johnson,' and American Landscape Painter, 1827-1908." AAJ 12, no. 4 (Autumn 1980): 32-65.
Baur, John I. H. and Margaret C. Conrads. Meditations on Nature: The Drawings of David Johnson. Exh. cat. Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York, 1987.
Owens, Gwendolyn. Nature Transcribed: The Landscapes and Still Lifes of David Johnson (1827-1908). Exh. cat. H.F. Johnson Mus. of Art, Ithaca; The Art Gallery, U. of MD, College Park; Georgia Mus. of Art,Athens; Natl. Acad. of Des.,NY. Hanover,NH,1988.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 369.