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Portrait of Edward Aisquith

Joshua Johnson, American (active Baltimore), born c. 1762

Made in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, North and Central America

c. 1810

Oil on canvas

22 1/2 × 18 3/8 inches (57.2 × 46.7 cm) Frame: 25 3/4 × 21 1/2 × 2 inches (65.4 × 54.6 × 5.1 cm)

Curatorial Department:
American Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by Dr. Benjamin F. Hammond, the Edith H. Bell Fund, and with funds contributed in honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Museum and in celebration of African American art, 2001

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The earliest documented professional African American artist, Joshua Johnson (whose last name sometimes appears as Johnston) worked as a portrait painter in Baltimore, where he produced more than eighty known works between 1795 and 1825. He may have begun life as a slave, but Johnson was certainly a free man by 1795, when he advertised himself as a self-taught "genius" in the Baltimore Intelligencer. This is the first work by the artist to enter the Museum's collection.

Additional information:
  • PublicationGifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Joshua Johnson, the earliest documented professional African American artist, worked as a portrait painter in Baltimore from about 1795 to 1825, producing more than eighty known portraits. The facts about Johnson’s biography are scant; he may have begun life as a slave, but was a free man by the time he described himself as a self-taught “genius” in an advertisement in the Baltimore Intelligencer in 1795. In fact, the style and technique of Johnson’s paintings suggest that he received training from members of the Peale family—Charles Willson Peale, his sons Raphaelle and Rembrandt, or his nephew Charles Peale Polk—all of whom visited or were resident in Baltimore in the late 1780s and 1790s.

    Johnson’s most famous, and most charming, portraits are full-length portrayals of young children in detailed settings. Of the remainder, the majority are single figures at half- or bust-length, portraying working- and middle-class Baltimoreans. His rendering of Edward Aisquith, a Baltimore merchant who lived from 1780 to 1815, is an outstanding example of these simpler portraits, and the first of Johnson’s paintings to enter the Museum’s collection.

    This work has a liveliness of characterization and feel of connectedness between the sitter and the artist/viewer that are much more vivid than in most of Johnson’s portraits, whatever their size and complexity. Aisquith’s little smile, the fanatically precise arrangement of his hair, and the delicacy and refinement conveyed by the positions of his hands are all rendered in exquisite detail. Johnson painted in very thin layers of color, and many of his works have suffered from abrasion and harsh cleaning that have removed their original detail, giving them a spectral appearance. Fortunately, the portrait of Aisquith retains its original coloration and detail to a remarkable degree. Furthermore, Johnson has portrayed his sitter at half-length in the small format that he usually employed for less ambitious bust-size portraits. As a result, Aisquith completely fills the canvas, enhancing the impression of a vital, energetic personality. Darrell Sewell, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), p. 49.