Young Lady Holding a Rose and Young Gentleman Holding a Book, a Pair of Miniature Portraits
Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1820
Each, oil on artist board, 4 ¾ x 4 inches, in original gilt frames

Eighty years ago, Edith Gregor Halpert presciently noted that “These are unusual examples of portraiture in miniature, executed more in the manner of large, traditional portraits,” an insightful observation that presaged their ultimate attribution. Joshua Johnson is considered America’s first professional African American portrait painter. He was first identified in 1942 having previously been known as the “brass tacks” artist because of the repeated inclusion of the material in his work. Johnson was recorded in a 1764 bill of sale from William Wheeler to George Johnson (Johnston) for a “mulatto boy named Joshua,” and in a 1782 manumission order that reveals his age at the time as “upwards of Nineteen Years” and that he was the son of his owner, George Johnson. In 1782, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, but little is known of his life until 1796, when he is listed as a portrait painter in the Baltimore city directory. Two years later, he placed his first advertisement, describing himself as a “self-taught genius.” Additional advertisements and directory entries indicate his various addresses until 1824, after which there is no record of his life.

These are the first miniature portraits attributed to Joshua Johnson known to us. They are additionally rare in being the second and third recorded examples of Johnson’s use of artist board in place of canvas; the first documented instance was his full-size portrait of Mrs. Thomas Chandler, circa 1820–1825, illustrated in Carolyn J. Weekley and Stiles Tuttle Colwill, Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter (Williamsburg, VA: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1987), p. 164, no. 82.

Collection of Isabel Carleton Wilde (1877–1951), Cambridge, Massachusetts; American Folk Art Gallery/ The Downtown Gallery, New York; Collection of Edith Gregor Halpert (1900–1970), New York, 1943; By family descent; David A. Schorsch, New York, 1994; Private collection.

“Exhibition of Early American Paintings, the Loan Collection of Isabel Carleton Wilde,” the Whitney Studio Club, New York, 1927. “The Isabel Carleton Wilde Collection of Early American Folk Paintings,” John Becker Galleries, New York, 1933, cat. nos. 48–49. “Selections from the Wilde Collection,” The Downtown Gallery, New York, 1944, cat. no. 10. “American Folk Art: The Edith Gregor Halpert Collection,” Eden Hill House, Newtown, Connecticut, 1952. “American Folk Art: The Edith Gregor Halpert Collection,” Eden Hill House, Newtown, Connecticut, 1957. “American Folk Art: Selected examples from the Personal Collection of Edith Gregor Halpert,” David A. Schorsch, New York, 1994.

David A. Schorsch, American Folk Art: Selected Examples from the Personal Collection of Edith Gregor Halpert (New York: David A. Schorsch, 1994), pp. 16–17, no. 6.


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