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An oil painting portrays a girl sitting in a chair with a book in one hand.

An oil painting portrays a girl sitting in a wooden chair. She looks straight ahead while her head and body are turned three-quarters. Her hair is pinned up with short curls covering her forehead. Her right arm lays in her lap, while her right hand holds a partially opened book and her thumb marks a page. Her other arm is crossed as her left hand rests on her right forearm. She wears a white dress with a transparent high collar and a blue high-waisted belt.

Gallery Text

This delicately rendered image is attributed to Joshua Johnson, the earliest known African American to make a living from portraiture in the United States. Johnson’s interest in fashionable dress, furniture styles, and his strong sense of color, shape, and mass are on display in this painted likeness of a young woman seated on a Sheraton side chair, holding a book. She wears a white cotton “empire” dress with blue trim, a lace “chemisette” over her bust and neck, and a matching blue silk shawl.

Johnson composed the likenesses of more than a hundred members of Baltimore and northern Virginian society, including Black subjects, free and enslaved; Catholics; Jews; Quakers; Protestants; abolitionists; and slaveholders. Though Federal-era conventions of costume and pose reveal little about the unidentified subject’s character, the painting reveals much about Johnson’s ability to navigate adroitly across social worlds and representations of race and status in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Joshua Johnson, American (unknown c. 1763, active 1796-1824 probably Baltimore, MD)
Portrait of a Young Woman
Other Titles
Title: Portrait of a Girl
Former Title: Unidentified Lady
Work Type
c. 1810-1815
Persistent Link


Level 2, Room 2220, European and American Art, 17th–19th century, Rococo and Neoclassicism in the Eighteenth Century
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Physical Descriptions

Oil on canvas
61 × 50.1 cm (24 × 19 3/4 in.)
framed: 73 × 62.2 × 3.8 cm (28 3/4 × 24 1/2 × 1 1/2 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • label: A paper label on the wooden backing of the frame reads: "FROM/FITZGERALD'S/Emporium of Fine Arts/No. 5 (5?) N. GAY STREET/ BALTIMORE."


Recorded Ownership History
Bertha Slattery Lieberman, Baltimore, MD; to her son William S. Lieberman, New York, NY; to Washburn Gallery, New York, NY, 1987-2005; Estate of William S. Lieberman, 2005-2007; his bequest to the Fogg Museum, 2007.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of William S. Lieberman
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art

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Joshua Johnson is documented as the earliest artist of African descent to make a living from painting in the United States. He was a professional portrait painter who lived in and around Baltimore, Maryland. His birth and death dates, as well as place of birth and death, are unknown.

Publication History

  • Carolyn J. Weekley, Stiles Tuttle Colwill, Leroy Graham, and Mary Ellen Hayward, Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter, exh. cat., Maryland Historical Society (Baltimore, MD, 1987), p. 150, cat. 63, ill.
  • Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Melissa Renn, American Paintings at Harvard, Volume One: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826, Yale University Press (U.S.) and Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge and New Haven, 2014), p. 310, cat. 269, ill.

Exhibition History

  • Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter, Maryland Historical Society, 09/26/1987 - 01/03/1988; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, 01/17/1988 - 05/15/1988; Whitney Museum of American Art, 06/18/1988 - 08/25/1988; Whitney Museum of American Art, Stamford, CT Branch, 09/09/1988 - 11/09/1988
  • 32Q: 2220 18th-19th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/04/2021 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

  • Google Art Project
  • ReFrame
  • Collection Highlights

Verification Level

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