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Joshua Johnson: A Fantastic Naïf

Joshua Johnson - Family Group - c. 1800- Oil on canvas - 34 13/16 x 53 9/16 in. - National Gallery of Art - Washington, D.C.American painter from the Baltimore area, of African and European ancestry. Joshua Johnson (1763-1824) is often viewed as the first person of color to make a living as a painter in the United States. He is known for his naïve paintings of prominent Maryland residents. Documents dated from July 25, 1782, state that Johnson was the "son of a white man and a black slave woman owned by a William Wheeler, Sr." His father, George Johnson (also spelled Johnston in some documents) purchased Joshua, age 19, from William Wheeler, a small Baltimore-based farmer, confirmed by a bill of sale dating from October 6, 1764. Johnson received his freedom in 1782. From 1796 until his death, he advertised his skills, identifying himself as a portrait painter and limner. He moved frequently, residing often where other artists, specifically chair-makers, lived, which suggests that he might have provided extra income for himself by painting chairs. His frequent moves also suggest that he tended to work for clients near whom he lived. No records mention any educational or creative training, so he is regarded as a NaÏve artist.

“Naïfs” refers to those artists in mainstream societies who lack or reject conventional expertise in the representation or depiction of real objects. Naïfs are not to be confused with hobbyists, or “Sunday painters,” who paint for fun. The naïf creates with the same passion as the trained artist, but without the latter’s formal knowledge of (or training in) art. Two of the more famous Naïfs are Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)  and Grandma Moses (1860-1961). However, that Joshua Johnston was able to make his living as an artist—at the time he did so—is quite remarkable.

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