I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?
Joshusa Johnson (1763 – after 1826), Earliest Known African-American Artist.
The earliest known African-American artist is antebellum era artist Joshua Johnson who painted in the early 1800s. He lived in Baltimore and advertised himself as a self-taught portrait artist. He may have been biracial and earned his freedom which allowed him to become a financially successful professional artist. He painted local resident – sea captains, merchants, shopkeepers and their families.
Of the about 80 paintings attributed to Johnson only one is signed, and only two are of African-Americans. His portraits are formal mostly with plain backgrounds, though some have tiled floors and windows with distant landscapes. If he included other objects, they were letter, books, gloves, parasols, riding crops dogs, flowers and fruit.
Very little is known about Joshua Johnson – interestingly his paintings are dated because of the ages of the known sitters not because of when he might have painted them. Only two of his paintings were of African-Americans – of Daniel Coker (1780 – 1846), a biracial African-American who gained his freedom and became a Methodist minister. Coker moved to Sierra Leone with his family and started the West Africa Methodist Church. The second was of an unknown cleric.
(Images courtesy NGA & Smithsonian).