Solving the Mystery: Did Joshua Johnson Paint This Portrait?
When this early nineteenth-century portrait came to Winterthur, it was damaged and overpainted. Nevertheless, its potential historical significance excited the museum staff. According to family tradition, the man in the portrait is John Moale Russell (1784−1827), a member of Baltimore’s prestigious Moale family. Although the sitter’s identity is unconfirmed, if this gentleman is a Moale, it is possible that the artist who painted the Moale family matriarch (Ellin North Moale) could have painted this portrait. That artisan was Baltimore’s Joshua Johnson.
Johnson is the first documented African American painter in America. He was born the son of a white man and a black slave in Baltimore. Manumission records show that his father likely paid for Johnson to be freed by his nineteenth birthday. In 1796, Johnson began advertising in Baltimore city directories and newspapers as a portrait painter of “self-taught genius.” He continued to paint into the 1820s. To date, more than eighty portraits, mostly of affluent Baltimore residents, have been attributed to him. Could this be another?