Artist: Joshua Johnson
Title: Mrs. Abraham White, Jr., and Daughter Rose
Oil on canvas
Overall: 30 x 25 1/2 in. (76.2 x 64.8 cm) Overall, Frame: 35 x 30 1/8 x 2 in. (88.9 x 76.5 x 5.1 cm)
Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch
What details do you notice in this portrait of a woman and child?
Try to sit like the woman. How do you feel?
How would you describe this painting to a person who could not see it?
This portrait is typical of post-Revolutionary War art made by self-taught painters. Martha Bussey White (1778-1809) is shown seated with one of her seven children, Rose Elizabeth (1807-1875). Although he did not have formal training in an art school, artist Joshua Johnson is able to show the warmth of the relationship and the tenderness of the mother towards her daughter as she places her hand on Rose Elizabeth’s shoulder. The two are also depicted holding props. Martha holds a book, and Rose Elizabeth holds a sprig of strawberries, a common symbol for the sweetness of youth. Johnson repeatedly used the two props in many of his paintings of women and children.
Joshua Johnson was one the first freedmen to earn a professional reputation as a portraitist. By the 1800s when Johnson was painting, Baltimore was comprised of a large African-American population, where free blacks outnumbered those enslaved. In a newspaper advertisement from 1798, Johnson promoted himself as a
...self-taught genius, deriving from nature and industry his knowledge of the Art and having experienced many insufferable obstacles in the pursuit of his studies, it is highly gratifying to him to make assurances of his ability to execute all commands with an effect and style that give fascination.
Johnson painted more than 80 portraits of middle-class families, including merchants like Mrs. White’s family. However, only two of Johnson’s surviving portraits depict African-American subjects. When Johnson painted Mrs. White and her daughter, Abraham White, Jr. ran a grocery establishment on High Street, not far from Johnson’s home.
How does what you’ve learned about Johnson’s life and career change your ideas about this painting?
What is your experience having your portrait made, such as a school picture? How did you pose? Were there
any props included?