Joshua Johnson is one of America’s earliest known African American portraitists. Little of the artist’s life is documented but manumission papers—documents relating to his emancipation—reveal that Johnson was born to a white father and an enslaved mother in Maryland sometime between 1761 and 1763. In 1782, after spending roughly twenty years as a slave, Johnson was sold to his father and promised his freedom upon his twenty-first birthday or after the completion of a blacksmith apprenticeship, whichever milestone was reached first. Despite theories that Johnson learned to paint from the well-known artist Charles Wilson Peale, Johnson’s whereabouts and endeavors during his first years of freedom remain a mystery. However, from 1794 to 1825 Johnson established himself as one of Baltimore’s most active and reputable painters, taking commissions from the city’s elite.
This is one of two known portraits Johnson completed of Letitia Grace McCurdy, the young daughter in an affluent merchant family. As with many portraits of the time, the painting was commissioned to reflect the McCurdys’ wealth and status, and Letitia’s attire reflects her sophistication. Her vibrant red Moroccan-leather shoes with gold buckles, along with her white dress and haircut, reflect the French Neoclassical styles that became fashionable in America in the early 1800s. In addition, Letitia’s gold accessories and Pomeranian dog are symbols of her social standing.