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David Bjelajac

(fl c. 1796–1824).

American painter, perhaps of West Indian heritage. Johnson was the first significant, identifiable African American professional painter. He worked primarily in Baltimore, painting portraits from 1796 to 1824. His career and his identity as a ‘Free Householder of Colour’ are sketchily documented in city records. He had once been a slave and apprenticed to a blacksmith, but was freed by the 1780s. More than 80 portraits have been attributed to him (see fig.). Sarah Ogden Gustin (c. 1798–1802; Washington, DC, N.G.A.) is the only signed work and typifies his early style. Although the figure is woodenly rendered and awkwardly seated within a flattened space, the view through a window reveals a painterly landscape and an attempt at atmospheric perspective. Johnson’s early portraits closely resemble compositions by members of Charles Willson Peale’s family, particularly Peale’s nephew Charles Peale Polk, suggesting that he may have studied under them. His later work is more tightly painted and includes several large family portraits, such as ...