Portrait of a Gentleman

Joshua Johnson (circa 1765 – 1830)
1796 – 1824, Baltimore Maryland
Oil on canvas, 68 cm x 58 cm

Born into slavery, Joshua Johnson had received his freedom by 1796, when he began to advertise his abilities as a portrait painter in the Baltimore press, describing himself as someone who had surmounted many obstacles in the pursuit of his studies. As a ‘free man of colour’ he remained close to his native city of Baltimore, lest he be captured by slave traders and auctioned as a fugitive. Johnson is now considered the first, prominent, African-American painter. Most of his sitters were affluent White people, probably from abolitionist circles, there being only two known portraits of Black sitters.

By comparing the facial features of the subject of this portrait with another, confirmed likeness, it is now accepted that he is Daniel Coker (1780 – 1846), a prominent cleric of Baltimore who helped found the African Methodist Episcopal Church and publicly contrasted the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the continuance of slavery in the US.

© The American Museum in Britain (Bath, UK)

Accession reference: The American Museum in Britain (Bath, UK), 1959.95