Joshua Johnson (occasionally spelled Johnston) is one of the earliest identifiable African-American artists. This portrait is one of Johnson’s few recorded images of an African American subject. The identity of the sitter has yet to be confirmed, though clues suggest that it may be Abner Coker, a minister at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore. Johnson’s naturalistic style eschewed the theatricality and painterly panache of his contemporaries. Instead he emphasized the details of the sitter’s likeness and downplayed the role of color, perhaps to enhance the sobriety and dignity of his subject. Johnson gives his sitter a pleasing, easy expression that dispels the awkwardness of a formal portrait sitting. The resulting portrait suggests a man who is self-confident and pleasantly urbane.
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