Four Works by African American Artists in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Collection

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The four African-American artists highlighted in this instructional resource span a period from around 1765 to the 1990s. The works represented here are from the Baltimore Museum of Art

JOSHUA JOHNSON (ca. 1765 - ca. 1830)


Joshua Johnson earned a living as a portrait painter in Baltimore from around 1795 to around 1825. Although he may have been a slave or servant during his early years, Johnson is listed in Baltimore's first directory in 1796 as a free black. His profession as a painter was unique not only in Baltimore, but anywhere in America at that time. Johnson's first patrons were members of Baltimore's most prominent families. The majority of Johnson's later portraits are of working and middle class Baltimoreans, including craftsman, merchants, shopkeepers, sea captains, and clergymen.


In The Garden (ca. 1805)

Oil on canvas; 271/2" x 19 3/4"

The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, New York. BMA 1967.76.1

Joshua Johnson used oil paints for his portraits. The paint is thinly applied in most areas, with only a slight build-up, or impasto, to create highlights. No artist in Baltimore painted as many portraits of children as Johnson. He often included distinctive props, such as pet dogs, fanciful moths, bowls or baskets of fruit, or sprigs of strawberries or cherries. The background colors Johnson used were often shaded to darker tones as they moved away from the sitter's head. Johnson also painted his sitters' clothes in colors that he thought would complement the costume, rather than paint the clothes as they actually were.

In The Garden depicts a child whose identity is unknown. He includes a fanciful moth, which might symbolize transition. Perhaps the child had already made a transition from life to death when Johnson painted this portrait.


Where does Johnson use paint thinly in this painting?

Where does he use a light build-up, an impasto, to create highlights?

What props did Johnson include? Where did Johnson paint something that appears transparent?

Why would a fanciful moth symbolize transition? Are there portraits of people in your home? If so, how were they made? Who are the portraits of? ACTIVITY

Make two portraits of yourself: one as you are today, the other as you will be in ten years from now. Remember to include props to indicate something about yourself today and something about who you will be in the future. What do these portraits tell about you?

HORACE PIPPIN (1888-1946)


Horace Pippin was one of few African-American artists in the 1940s who achieved fame during his lifetime. His works depicted childhood memories, popular events, Bible stories, landscapes, domestic interiors, and war scenes. His paintings were also reproduced in mass-circulation magazines such as Newsweek and Vogue.

Pippin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1888, but spent most of his childhood in Goshen, New York. As a youngster, Pippin was known in the community for his artistic ability. He often drew horses and riders at Goshen's race track. At age 14, Pippin entered a "Draw Me" contest and won a set of crayons and a box of watercolors. It wasn't until he was an adult, however, that Pippin considered becoming a professional artist

In 1917, 29-year old Horace Pippin heard President Wilson deliver a radio appeal to Americans to join the armed forces. (The United States had entered World War I against Germany.) Pippin enlisted and served as corporal of his regiment, which later became well-known as the 369th Colored Infantry Regiment, dubbed by the Germans as "Hell Fighters," because they never lost a soldier in six months of heavy battle. But some soldiers were wounded, including Pippin, who was shot and left without control of his right arm. …