African America’s premier portrait painter, Joshua Johnson (aka Johnston), portrayed himself this way in his first ad in the Baltimore Intelligencer of December 19, 1798:

The subscriber, grateful for the liberal encouragement which an indulgent public have conferred on him, in his first essays in PORTRAIT PAINTING, returns his sincere acknowledgements.  He takes liberty to observe, That by dint of industrious application, he has so far improved and matured his talents, that he can ensure the most precise and natural likenesses.  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.  He therefore respectfully solicits encouragement.  Apply at this House, in the Alley leading from Charles to Hanover Street, back of Sears’s Tavern.

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There is so much that we don’t know about Johnson.  The little we do know has been unearthed to prove his “race”—an issue that would never have been raised but for the quality of his work.  With the biases of his time, he speaks in duly guarded fashion of his “insuperable obstacles.”  Among his paintings are fine oils of the prominent Blacks of his day.  He was listed in the 1817 Baltimore city directory as a “free householder of color.”  And as one scholar has put it, “to have listed a White man as a Negro would have been a serious matter.”  In fact, it would have been grounds for a libel suit. 

Sadly, much of the historical debate over Johnson was fueled by the notion that he was “too good” to be Black.  And was he really good?  He was fabulous -- as you can see in his "Portrait of An African American Man" (1820).


Image: public domain