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The biography of Joshua Johnson published in 1992 by the National Gallery of Art in the systematic catalogue of its American naive paintings has been updated by new information published in 1996 by Jennifer Bryan and Robert Torchia. Their article, "The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson" (Archives of American Art Journal, volume 36, number 2, 1996, 2-7), is the main source for the following biographical information about the artist.
Joshua Johnson was rediscovered in the 1930s by J. Hall Pleasants, a Baltimore genealogist and art historian, who attributed thirteen paintings to Johnson and attempted to reconstruct his life and career on the basis of fragmentary and often contradictory information. Among the many questions raised about the artist have been his race, his life dates, the spelling of his name (Johnson or Johnston), and essential details about his life. Some of the speculation was finally dismissed when the Maryland Historical Society's Department of Manuscripts received three volumes of Baltimore County court chattel records, including registers of personal property transactions such as mortgages, deeds of gift, powers of attorney, bills of sale, and releases of slaves from bondage.
One of these volumes contains the bill of sale and the manumission record of Joshua Johnson, and these prove conclusively that he was a mulatto, born in Baltimore around 1763. He was the son of a white man, George Johnson, and an unknown black slave owned by a William Wheeler Sr. The documents were recorded on July 15, 1782, and concern a slave named Joshua, "now aged upwards of Nineteen Years." The bill of sale records that on October 6, 1764, Wheeler had sold the child to George Johnston or Johnson (the document spells the name both ways) for 25 pounds, then about half the price of an adult male slave field hand. In the manumission record, Johnson acknowledged that Joshua was his son, and arranged to free him when the young man completed his apprencticeship to Baltimore blacksmith William "Forepaw," or when he turned twenty-one, whichever came first. For the manumission to be valid, it had to be acknowledged before a justice of the peace, and in this case it was Colonel John Moale (1731-1798), a wealthy merchant-planter. Joshua Johnson later painted a double portrait of Moale's wife and granddaughter, Ellin North Moale and Ellin North Moale (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia).
There is little surviving biographical information about the people mentioned in the documents. William Wheeler Sr. lived from 1694 to 1767 and was a small farmer. Nothing is known about Joshua's mother; no male slaves are recorded in Wheeler's will or inventory, although his will mentions two female slaves, one of whom had two children. There is no known will or inventory left by George Johnson, nor does his name occur in Baltimore County land records. He does appear in the 1773 tax list for Back River Upper Hundred in Baltimore County, living on Britain's Range, and he is listed in 1779 in the Baltimore County court minutes. William Forepaugh, the blacksmith, was a member of the Mechanical Company of Baltimore in the mid-1760s, and fought in the Revolutionary War in Baltimore units.
After Joshua Johnson received his freedom in 1782, he was listed as a portrait painter or limner in Baltimore city directories, beginning in 1796, through 1824. He moved often, living mainly in the section of Baltimore where makers of painted chairs resided, suggesting that he may have supplemented his income by decorating furniture. The National Gallery's portrait of Sarah Odgen Gustin is generally believed to have been painted by Johnson in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, sometime between 1798 and 1802, and as a freeman he could have been an itinerant portraitist. However, many of the sitters of portraits attributed stylistically to Johnson lived in close proximity to his places of residence. There is no record of his training, nor is it yet known if he had direct contact with any of the artists linked to him by scholars, among them the Peale family of Baltimore, and the Connecticut artist Ralph Earl and his son, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl. He placed two advertisements in local newspapers, one in the Baltimore Intelligencer of December 19, 1798, in which he described himself as "a self-taught genius" who had "experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies," and the other in the Baltimore Telegraphe of October 11, 1802.
Registers of St. Peter's Roman Catholic church in Baltimore likely refer to the artist, and indicate that he married his first wife, Sarah, in about 1785. They had at least four children, two sons and two daughters; both daughters died young. By 1803 a woman named Clara was Johnson's wife. The painter was listed among "Free Householders of Colour" in the Baltimore city directory of 1817-1818, but does not appear in Baltimore records after 1824. By 1825 he was living in Frederick County, Maryland, and within two years had moved again within the state, to Anne Arundel County. Approximately eighty-three portraits are attributed to Johnson, and although they are difficult to date, none appears to have been done after his assumed departure from Baltimore. As yet unknown is any information about his later activities, or where and when he died.