Early in the 18th century, many of the portraits of colonial ladies were done by Henrietta Johnston (1670-1729), the first female portrait painter in the American colonies. She used French pastels—a relatively new medium at that time. Johnston produced facial features with precision and she blended colors skillfully, particularly in the hair.
Johnston was born to a French Huguenot family in Dublin, Ireland in 1670. At the age of 10 or 12, she fled with her family to England to avoid persecution.
Johnston’s earliest identified works are from about 1704inIreland. The portraits she drew during this period were mostly of members of her husband’s family. After the death of her first husband, Henrietta wed the Reverend Gideon Johnston and they moved to Charleston, South Carolina in 1708.
Many French Protestant Huguenots, seeking religious freedom, were moving to Charleston, where they began building fine townhouses along the harbor’s edge and wanted portraits for their hallways and to establish their family’s presence as a power.
Life was not easy in Charleston and the couple suffered poverty and illness. Henrietta’s training and background suggests she was at best a talented amateur who was good at portrait painting. She was one of the few portrait artists in town, and she quickly found her skills much in demand, drawing pastel portraits of many of Charleston’s French Huguenot residents. Johnston drew strength to carry on from her artwork.
Johnston’s work remained popular for many years, and she became the first professional female artist on this side of the Atlantic. Some 40 portraits of prominent people in Charleston, South Carolina, are known today, most created between 1707 and 1720. Her body of work is an important documentary of leading people in an important area in American history.
Source: Henrietta Johnston
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