Teaching Students About Joshua Johnson


Joshua Johnson, a self-taught artist and the earliest known African American painter in the United States, holds a prominent place in American art history. Teaching students about Johnson’s life, artistic style, and perseverance can provide an enriching educational experience, while simultaneously fostering a deeper understanding of both the struggles faced by African Americans during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and their contributions to shaping the country’s cultural milieu. In this article, we will discuss how to introduce young learners to Joshua Johnson and his works, while also highlighting significant aspects of his life story.

Early Life and Education:

Joshua Johnson was born around 1763 in Maryland and grew up enslaved. Although records on his early life are scarce, it is believed that he was taught by or apprenticed to a white portrait painter Charles Willson Peale or another local Baltimore artist after gaining his freedom in 1782. To begin teaching students about Johnson’s background, it is essential to highlight the oppressive social conditions under which he lived during his early years and how he eventually emerged as an accomplished painter.

Artistic Style:

Joshua Johnson’s paintings are characterized by a strong emphasis on detail, particularly when it comes to clothing, accessories, and faces. His use of color is generally muted but shows remarkable depth through subtle shifts in tone. As you introduce your students to his artworks, encourage them to examine these specific aspects that make his style unique. To involve them further in building their analysis skills, consider incorporating group discussions focused on comparing Johnson’s works with those of other artists from the same era.

The Subjects:

Johnson primarily painted portraits of well-to-do families in Baltimore and Washington D.C. His subjects were usually children or young couples from prominent families who were willing to provide patronage to an African-American artist—a remarkable achievement considering the time’s deeply ingrained racial biases. Encourage your students to explore the sitters’ stories, which can give them valuable insights into the complexity of American society during this period.

Impact on Art History:

Joshua Johnson is an important figure in American art history because he serves as evidence of African American artistic talent and presence during the early years of the United States. Although relatively few of his works have survived, each one helps to reveal a previously unrecognized aspect of the African American experience. To make your lesson even more engaging, you might consider taking your students to a local museum or gallery exhibiting Johnson’s works, where they can appreciate his art firsthand.


Through learning about Joshua Johnson’s life and artworks, students can gain a better understanding of perseverance, determination, and exceptional talent in the face of adversity. Furthermore, they will grasp the diverse complexities of American society during this period. By incorporating collaborative discussions, analysis activities, and real-life examples into your lessons, you can enhance their appreciation for not only Johnson but also for many other often-overlooked contributors to American art history.

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