Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Artists before the Twentieth Century

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Portrait of Adelia Ellender (c. 1803-1805)

Joshua Johnson, Portrait of Adelia Ellender (c. 1803-1805). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The best-known African American artist of the early republic, Joshua Johnson (fl. 1795-1824) was born a slave, but had been freed by 1796. Johnson lived in Baltimore, where he became known for his portraits, especially of children, usually shown standing, gazing at the viewer, and with a decorative device, such as books, or fruit. In the portrait of Adelia Ellender shown here, the child stands beside flowers while pointing at a butterfly. His style is closely associated with that of limners, self-taught artists who painted in a flat style with their subjects in stilted poses. Although the subjects in Johnson's art are often flat, he creates depth by overlapping figures and by placing his sitters in geometric spaces that provide a sense of space (as above, where the child stands before a wall in front of the flowers to her left, which appear closer to her than the plant to her right).

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