Joshua Johnson is the first professional African-American portraitist and miniaturist. He was born enslaved in New Orleans in 1763 to a slave mother and a white father.

Johnson self-taught himself portraiture by observing other artists and their works. After he was freed from slavery, he became a limner and was able to earn enough money to support him and his family. Ties to the many abolitionists around him provided him with numerous commissions of the wealthy families (some of which were also abolitionists) in his area.

Because Johnson was self-trained, his style is more naïve and much less refined than trained artists. His compositions are more awkward, linear, simple, and focused on details. Unlike the Renaissance artists, Johnson preferred little to no chiaroscuro and a more rigid appearance in his figures. However, his portraits provide a good sense of likeness and exhibition of status of his sitters.

Joshua Johnson is an example of a slave who was not only able to make a living he enjoyed, but was also able to provide for his family. His life shows other slaves or recently freed slaves that it is possible to overcome the severe racial injustices present in America. The portraits of abolitionists he created were of abolitionist friends or friends of friends. They supported Johnson’s career and even advertised his talents to others.

Johnson would want to speak to the numerous abolitionists and former slaves present at the Salon because he would be able to relate to their stories. He and Frederick Douglass would speak of how they learned skills during slavery that helped them achieve a successful life after they were freed. Johnson would be able to appreciate all of the works, artists, and guests present because he could see how far supporters for African American equality reached.




Farrington, Lisa. African-American Art: A Visual and Cultural History. New York City: Oxford UP, 2017. Print.