Exhibition | Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on April 12, 2021

The exhibition opens this Saturday; from the press release:

Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore
Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland, 17 April 2021 — 23 January 2022

Curated by Daniel Fulco

This exciting exhibition, organized by the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Daniel Fulco, Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator, is the first monographic look at the work of the enigmatic and compelling African American artist Joshua Johnson (ca. 1763–1824) since 1988. Often considered the first professional Black artist in America, Johnson was a freed slave who achieved a remarkable degree of success as a portraitist in his lifetime by painting affluent patrons in his native Baltimore. Johnson’s subjects consisted of politicians, doctors, clergymen, merchants, and sea captains.

Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore contextualizes Johnson both historically and culturally and explores further the key forms of natural symbolism represented in his paintings. Featuring works by Johnson and his contemporaries, key loans come from the Maryland Center for History & Culture, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. This exhibition also will include a fully illustrated scholarly interpretive catalogue and a diverse range of related educational programs. Museum Director Sarah J. Hall says, “This exhibition has been in planning for three years, and has ended up being a particularly timely investigation of both art history and Black history. Additionally, it adds to our understanding of regional history in terms of both the practice of portraiture and our understanding of those who made and commissioned portraits. Happily, the exhibition will be on view for a full six months in order to allow as many people as possible to enjoy Johnson’s work and the wide variety of related public programs scheduled.”

An artist whose ancestry was both African and European, Johnson was primarily a self-taught painter. He was especially adept at capturing his sitters’ features and the details of their clothing, which offered subtle insights into their personalities. Johnson’s attention to detail and extensive inclusion of moths, fruits, and flowers in his paintings indicate that he carefully absorbed techniques and motifs from traditional European portraiture to create symbolic meaning. Furthermore, Johnson combined these elements with the latest trends in his genre, responding closely to work of the Peales, Charles Peale Polk, and Mid-Atlantic limners such as Frederick Kemmelmeyer and Caleb Boyle.

Given his background and the era in which he lived, Johnson was impelled to overcome many racial and social hurdles in pursuing his profession and he persevered remarkably in that endeavor. As described in an advertisement in the Baltimore Intelligencer from 1798, Johnson referred to himself in the third person as “A self-taught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the Art; and having experienced many insuperable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies, it is highly gratifying to him to make assurances of his ability to execute all commands with an effect, and in a style, which must give satisfaction.”

Joshua Johnson, Portrait of the James McCormick Family, 1804–05, oil on canvas, 51 × 69 inches (Collection of Maryland Center for History and Culture, Baltimore, gift of Dr. Thomas C. McCormick, 1920.6.1).

Such issues of race in Early American society still remain relevant and while a compelling and important theme to consider in relation to Johnson’s life and work, the exhibition also examines how his work engages with key developments in Maryland’s artistic heritage from approximately 1760 until 1840. Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore also explores issues related to politics, slavery, abolitionism, and society in antebellum Maryland.

As a complement to the Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore, the Museum will be installing a companion exhibition. Face to Face: Portraits from the 18th and 19th Centuries (April–October 2021), featuring European and American portraits from the permanent collection. These works expand the context of the Johnson exhibition and allow for a deeper understanding of the artist’s portraiture both before and during his lifetime.

Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore is organized by the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. This exhibition is generously supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Art Dealers Association of America Foundation, Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, Maryland Marketing Partnership, and Community Foundation of Washington County Maryland, Inc. This exhibition also is made possible with the support of an anonymous donor, Mr. and Mrs. James N. Holzapfel, Dr. & Mrs. George E. Manger, Dr. and Mrs. Robert S. Strauch, and Mr. & Mrs. Thomas B. Riford.

Daniel Fulco, ed., with David Taft Terry and Mark B. Letzer, Joshua Johnson: Portraitist of Early American Baltimore (Hagerstown, MD: Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, 2021), 106 pages, ISBN: 978-09144950301 (paperback), $25 / ISBN: 978-09144950408 (ebook), $10.

Daniel Fulco is Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. David Taft Terry is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Geography and Coordinator, Museum Studies & Historical Preservation Program at Morgan State University. Mark B. Letzer is President & CEO of the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

A variety of engaging complementary on-line programs are scheduled to enhance enjoyment of the exhibition, including discussions, lectures, and lesson-plans for use in classroom or at home. Check wcmfa.org, or the Museum’s social media pages for more information on registration and access.

About the Museum
Located in beautiful City Park, Hagerstown, Maryland, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1931, the legacy of Hagerstown native Anna Brugh Singer and her husband, Pittsburgh-born artist William Henry Singer, Jr. Featuring a collection of more than 6,000 objects, the Museum has important holdings of American painting, Old Masters, decorative arts, and sculpture. The Museum schedules an ambitious program of exhibitions, lectures, concerts, tours, and talks featuring national and international artists, and annually organizes and hosts the Cumberland Valley Artists and Cumberland Valley Photographers exhibitions, as well as a yearly showcase of the art of K-12 students in Washington County Public Schools. Its free youth art education programs have served four generations of local families. The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts has been free to the public since 1931.

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Note (added 7 January 2022) — The posting was updated with the extended date; the exhibition was originally scheduled to close 24 October 2021.

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