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The earliest documented professional African American artist, Joshua Johnson, was born into slavery in or near Baltimore, Maryland. An enigmatic figure, Johnson’s exact life dates are unknown, and even the spelling of his last name is debated. Active as a portraitist in Maryland and Virginia between the years of 1789 to 1825, Johnson is, at present, known to have executed over eighty-three verified works; only one canvas bears his signature. With the exception of two portraits of African American males, Johnson’s subjects are white men and women, many of them affluent Baltimoreans. A self-proclaimed “self-taught genius,” Johnson advertised that he had “experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies,” challenges he overcame to pave the way for future African Americans to pursue careers in the arts.  

The son of an enslaved woman and a white man, Johnson obtained his freedom around 1782 at the age of nineteen, when his father formally acknowledged his paternity. Following an apprenticeship to a blacksmith—a stipulation of his eventual emancipation—Johnson taught himself to paint, and was noted in Baltimore city directories as a “limner” or “portrait painter” between 1796 and 1824. Johnson’s very inclusion in these registries, which did not list slaves, underscores his independence, and he is specifically categorized among "free householders of Color" in an 1817 edition. One of Johnson’s first clients was Colonel John Moale, the very judge who had signed the artist’s manumission years earlier. These directories also reveal that Johnson had no less than eight different residences in Baltimore, suggesting the itinerant nature of his profession. All records of the artist’s addresses and activities cease by 1827, and it is unknown where or when he died.

Johnson’s portraits share distinct qualities and are identifiable by the minimal modeling of subjects’ oval faces, tapered lips, and an overall flat formality. Fixed with straightforward gazes, his sitters pose stiffly in a three-quarter view before a plain background. Several props make recurring appearances, including books, gloves, parasols, flowers, fruit, and dogs. Translucent glazes of oil paint in rich palettes result in a luminosity that enhances skin tones and luxurious fabrics like rich brocade and gossamer lace. These elements—subject position, dress, accoutrements, and thinly painted surfaces—connect Johnson to prevailing portrait practices of the day, most notably the style employed by the extended Peale/Polk family of painters in Philadelphia or the Earls of Connecticut. Such similarities—and, more significantly—Johnson’s undeniable mastery contribute to speculation that he received some form of training during his career. Fragmentary records and erroneous accounts over the centuries have made further scholarly research and documentation nearly impossible.

The subjects of these pendant portraits are Hilmer Schumacher, a Baltimore sugar refiner, and his wife Rachel Cloberg Schumacher. Believed to have been executed during one of Johnson’s most active seasons, the deep green spandrels that encircle the portrayals are typical of the artist’s work. Descended through the Schumacher family, these portraits are among a small group of paintings documented by Dr. J. Hall Pleasants, an authority on Maryland’s early painters, in the 1930s.

Johnson’s paintings are rare and are in prominent collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.