Benjamin Yoe and Benjamin Franklin Yoe
ARTIST: Joshua Johnson (c.1763-c.1826) is first listed in the 1796 City Directory of Baltimore in which he is cited as a portrait painter living between Hanover and Howard Streets. Subsequent Directories show Johnson living at eight different locations in Baltimore and Fells Point. In the 1816 directory he is listed with “Free Householders of Colour”; in others he is listed with white householders but sometimes with the notation “black man” or a cross by his name. According to church records, Johnson was a Roman Catholic.
Some of the mystery surrounding Johnson’s race was solved in 1996, when three volumes of Baltimore City Chattel Records (property transactions) were acquired by the Maryland Historical Society. These records had been miraculously rescued from destruction during the 1954 renovation of the Baltimore County Court House. The records contain two accounts confirming that Johnson was a free mulatto: a 1764 bill of sale in which a mulatto boy named Joshua was sold to a George Johnson and a 1782 transaction in which George Johnson recognized the mulatto boy Joshua as his son, and provided for his manumission or freedom. Joshua Johnson was nineteen years old and apprenticed to a blacksmith in Baltimore at that time.
The manumission record reads:
Where I George Johnson of Baltimore County in the State of Maryland having heretofore purchased of William Wheeler of the County aforesaid a certain Mulatto child named Joshua Johnson which I acknowledge to be my son, and Who is now apprentice to a certain William Forepaw blacksmith in Baltimore Town & now aged upwards of Nineteen Years–Now know ye whom it may concern, that I the said George Johnson for divers good Causes & Considerations me thereunto Moving do hereby Manumit & make free to all intents & purposes Whatsoever the said Joshua Johnson as soon as he shall be out of his said Apprenticeship or arrive to the age of twenty one years which shall first happen–In Witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand & Seal this 15th day of July 1782.
All of Johnson’s portraits are drawn in the same stiff manner, with a rigidity of arms and hands, the faces usually at three-quarters full and the eyes looking at the artist. The mouths are always drawn rather tightly. While his work may be classed with so-called primitive artists, his style was certainly influenced by the Peale-Polk tradition, especially Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822). There is some speculation that Johnson may have been the French-speaking servant referred to in Peale family papers, but this has not been proven.
FRAME: original black and gold frame.
RELATED WORKS: The MESDA collection contains two portraits by Johnson, companion portraits of the Yoe family of Baltimore (MESDA acc. 2170.1-2).
REFERENCES: Jennifer Bryan and Robert Torchia, “The Mysterious Portraitist Joshua Johnson” in Archives and Art Journal, vol. 36, 1996, 2-7.
DESCRIPTION: Oil on canvas portrait of a gentleman and a boy, both facing 3/4 right and left and looking at the artist. The man is seated on the right in a yellow painted Windsor chair and wears a dark coat with a high rolled collar, white waist-length vest with high standing collar, and a white cravat. The boy stands on the left and wears a blue skeleton suit and white ruffled collar.