John Johnston was born in Boston c. 1753, the son of engraver and decorative painter Thomas Johnston (c. 1708-1767). Of four brothers who became painters, John Johnston was the most talented. He was apprenticed after his father's death to coach and heraldic painter John Gore. In 1773 he joined his brother-in-law Daniel Rea, Jr. in the painting firm of Johnston and Rea, a continuation of his father's business. Account books of the firm (Baker Library, Harvard University Business School) indicate that much of his work was decorating clock faces, furniture, fire buckets, coaches, and other objects. Johnston served in the continental army during the Revolutionary War, was severely wounded at the battle of Long Island in 1776, and was imprisoned by the British for about a year. On his return to Boston, he continued the partnership with Daniel Rea until 1787, when he established himself as a portrait painter.
By 1795 Johnston was renting John Smibert's former painting studio. He was one of the few portrait painters in Boston before Gilbert Stuart's arrival in 1805, and is listed as a portrait painter in Boston city directories through 1808. His compositions derive from an already well-established tradition of Massachusetts colonial portraiture, primarily the work of John Singleton Copley. Johnston died in Boston in 1818. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Coburn, Frederick W. "The Johnstons of Boston. Part One." Art in America 21, no. 1 (December 1932): 27-36.
Coburn, Frederick W. "The Johnstons of Boston. Part Two." Art in America 21,no. 4 (October 1933): 132-139.
Swan, Mabel M. "The Johnstons and Reas-Japanners." Antiques 43 (May 1943): 210-212.
Sadik 1966, 108-110.
Sadik, Marvin S. Christian Gullagher; Portrait Painter to Federal America. Exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1976: 21.
Troyen, Carol. The Boston Tradition: American Paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts. Exh. cat. American Federation of Arts, New York, 1980: 70-71.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 109.