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Faculty Mentor

Leda Cempellin

Abstract

The emergence of African Americans as artists began in the Colonial Era with simple portraits. The first African American artist to gain recognition as a portraitist was Joshua Johnston who worked in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The majority of his portraits were of wealthy European American families, who were slave owners (Fig. 1). Johnston was formerly a slave, and as rumors suggests, his former owner was also a portraitist from which Johnston acquired his skills. Interestingly, Johnston did not sign or date any of his works (Lewis 15). It seems as though a suggestion to his name might reveal his race which would make the work less valuable, or seem insufficient to the other works created at the time. Another African American portrait artist of the Colonial era was Julien Hudson. Although the artist is of African descent, his piece Self Portrait (Fig. 2) shows the artist as a well dressed man with European features. The nose on the gentleman in the painting seems quite Romanesque. He is dressed in a tuxedo, complete with a bow tie around his neck. The portrait has a deep connection to the European artist Charles Bird King’s piece, Young Omawhaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawness. While King’s piece, with subjects bearing Romanesque noses and European features, referred to the ability of Native Americans to be assimilated to American ways, Hudson’s work may have implied that African Americans also had the nobility to fit in with the Europeans, not as slaves but as equals. [Page 1]

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