Museum in Hagerstown gets pair of rare portraits

January 29, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- Two rare paintings by early Baltimorean Joshua Johnson, who is recognized as the country's first black portraitist, and whose work is now being marketed for as much as $850,000, have been donated to a small art museum here.

The early 19th-century portraits of a Baltimore family that later moved to Hagerstown were donated to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts by a 93-year-old great-great-grandson of the man who commissioned the portraits.

Neither the donor, Hagerstown resident F. Sydney Cushwa, nor the museum would comment on the paintings' worth. Other sources familiar with the artist's work complimented the Hagerstown museum on its gifts, but would not speculate on their possible value, either.

Stiles T. Colwell, co-author of a catalog on Johnson's paintings and co-owner of a Baltimore art and antique gallery, noted that the artist's works have brought as little as $30,000 in recent years, although they also have brought much more. He said the two donated portraits would benefit from cleaning, a step that could help establish their value.

But he added: "It's a wonderful addition for that museum because Johnson's work is quite rare. For a museum in Hagerstown to get a pair of his portraits -- that's a major addition to its 19th-century collection."

Johnson's most famous portrait, "Little Girl in Pink with a Goblet Filled with Strawberries," sold for a record $660,000 at Sotheby's auction house in New York in 1988. That portrait, which dates to 1805, is being offered for sale at a New York art gallery for $850,000.

Believed to be the country's first black portraitist, Johnson worked in Baltimore from the mid-1790s until about 1825. He painted members of prominent families, including many children.

Several other curators and authorities agreed the Johnson portraits are a significant addition to the Hagerstown museum, which has a wing under construction. Johnson's work, they noted, is highly sought after and is collected by, among others, entertainer Bill Cosby. Johnson's work also is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington.

The Hagerstown museum's oil-on-canvas portraits, dating to 1809, are of the family of Benjamin Franklin Yoe, Mr. Cushwa's direct ancestor. One portrait is of Yoe and his namesake son. The other is of his wife, Susanna Amos Yoe, and daughter Mary Elizabeth. Yoe was a tailor who moved his family to Hagerstown the next year.

Two pairs of portraits

Mr. Colwell, curator of an exhibit of Johnson's work at the Maryland Historical Society several years ago that included the Yoe portraits, said he believed the Hagerstown museum's portraits are copies of the originals, which are on display at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Art in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Jean Woods, director of the Washington County museum, said she believes Johnson made two sets of the portraits -- one for each of the children -- a practice that was not uncommon. The value of the paintings is not lessened because they are copies, curators agreed.

"We're delighted to have these portraits. It's quite a wonderful gift," Ms. Woods said. "The fact that they're from a Maryland artist and that the sitters were a Hagerstown family makes it even better."

The donor, Mr. Cushwa, is a member of a prominent Western Maryland family that made its money in coal and bricks. He has been a longtime member and supporter of the 64-year-old Hagerstown museum.

"I've always been interested in the museum -- actually, since it opened, and I wanted my Hagerstown portraits to stay in the region," Mr. Cushwa said in a prepared statement. Family members would not elaborate.

Much of the Washington County museum's nearly 5,000-piece collection is late 19th-century and early 20th-century American art. The museum did not own any of Johnson's works, Ms. Woods said. Some of his portraits were displayed at the Hagerstown museum in a 1984 exhibit entitled "Celebrating 350 Years: 19th Century Maryland Artists."

Origins obscured

Although Johnson worked as a portrait painter in Baltimore, little is known about his background before his arrival in the United States. Biographers believe he came to this country from the West Indies. Historians differ on whether he arrived as a freedman or as a slave who was freed later.

He first was listed as a painter in Baltimore's city directory in 1796. Later directories identify Johnson as "a free householder of colour." He described himself as a "self-taught genius" in an ad promoting his portrait painting in a Baltimore newspaper.

Art historians believe Johnson may have received some training from Baltimore's renowned Peale family, which dominated the city's art scene around that time. Johnson's style often has been compared with that of Charles Peale Polk, a nephew of family patriarch Charles Willson Peale.

Johnson's portraits were the focus of an exhibit, "Joshua Johnson, Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter," displayed at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Va., in 1987.

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