Joshua Johnston is one of the greatest portrait painters of the early nineteenth century. He was popular nationally, due to his simple, unaffected depictions of his clients. Johnston painted with a warm sensitive style that gave his portraits life. Johnston's style is similar to that of Charles Wilson Peale. Peale was an artist who opened a drawing school in Baltimore in 1795. The school also encouraged the development of the Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia. Historians believe that Johnston may have been Peale's slave and learned the art by watching him, but there is no record to prove it. Others argue that Johnston saw his work or the work of his son Rembrandt Peale, and copied it. No matter where the truth may lie, Johnston remains a self-taught portrait painter who was, according to the Baltimore Directories between 1789-1824, a "free house-holder of colour, (and a) portrait painter." Records show that he lived at several addresses in the city of Baltimore all his free life. Johnston painted portraits for his clients until his death in 1830. No one is sure how many portraits he painted, but over two dozen have been uncovered. Bill Cosby owns three of his portraits, the Maryland Historical Society owns the one example shown at the top left, and the Corkran Gallery in Washington D. C. owns the one to the middle right.
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