Art History



Degree Name

Master of Arts in Art History (M.A.)

Type of Paper/Work

Qualifying paper


Heather M. Shirey

Second Advisor

Craig Eliason

Third Advisor

Jayme Yahr

Fourth Advisor

Victoria Young


Joshua Johnson (c. 1763 – c. 1824), the first African American to make a successful career as a portrait painter, has proven an elusive figure for art historians. The thrust of academic focus has centered on questions of his identity ever since his work was brought out of obscurity in the 1940s. Joshua Johnson studies either assumed or debated his racial identity until the 1990s when legal papers detailing his manumission came to light, resolving the issue.

It is now clear that Joshua Johnson was a freed slave, but in the face of lacking evidence art historians have said little else about the importance of his race and how he acknowledged it. Yet, what few historical sources he has left us and his portraiture career are inextricably linked with the growth of black consciousness in the Early National Period, which took place all around him. His life spent in Baltimore provides many clues indicating how he related to fellow African American and abolitionist voices like Benjamin Banneker, Daniel Coker, and Frederick Douglass. To be a successful black artisan in the pro-slavery United States held important meaning and it is through this success that Johnson is examined.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.