Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Female Artist of 18C American Women - Henrietta Johnston 1674-1729

Henrietta Johnston was a remarkable woman, not just because she was America's 1st known female portraitist & the 1st artist on this side of the Atlantic known to have worked in pastels, but because she lived a heroic life balancing her talent with the emotional & physical ups & downs of two rather inadequate husbands, while rearing a growing family.

Henrietta Johnston (c. 1670-1729) is recognized as one of America's earliest known female portrait artists. Born around 1670, possibly in France or Ireland, Henrietta de Beaulieu married Reverend Gideon Johnston in 1705, which marked the beginning of her journey to America. In 1707, the couple emigrated to Charles Town, now Charleston, South Carolina, where Gideon had been appointed as the rector of St. Philip's Church.

Life in the American colonies was challenging for Henrietta and her husband. They faced financial difficulties, and Gideon's health was often poor. To support her family, Henrietta began creating portraits, utilizing her artistic talents. Despite the hardships, her work gained recognition for its distinctive style and quality.

Henrietta Johnston primarily used pastels for her portraits, a medium that was relatively uncommon at the time in America. Her portraits are noted for their simplicity and elegance, often depicting the prominent members of Charles Town society. She focused on capturing the likeness and personality of her subjects with delicate lines and soft colors, which brought a unique charm to her work.

Johnston's artistic career was marked by her ability to balance her artistic endeavors with the demands of her family life in a struggling colonial environment. Her portraits not only provided a source of income but also documented the appearances and fashions of early 18th-century colonial America. Her works are considered valuable historical records, offering insights into the people and culture of that period.

Despite her significant contributions to early American art, much about Henrietta Johnston's life remains obscure. Her exact birth date and place of origin are not well-documented, and there are gaps in the historical record regarding her artistic training and early life. Nevertheless, her surviving works—approximately 40 portraits—attest to her skill and the important role she played as a pioneering female artist in colonial America.

Henrietta Johnston passed away around 1729, leaving behind a legacy as one of the first professional female artists in America. Her portraits remain cherished pieces in American art history, preserved in collections such as those of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston and other institutions dedicated to early American art. Through her work, Johnston not only provided for her family but also made a lasting impact on the cultural landscape of early America.

1711 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Henriette Charlotte de Chastaigner (Mrs Nathaniel Broughton)

She traveled from the old world to the new several times. Each trip across the Atlantic was a risk. Ship passengers knew that their lives were in danger throughout the voyage, but they forged ahead anyway.
1705 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Young Irish Girl.

At the age of 10 or 12, Henrietta de Beaulieu, fled with her Huguenot family to England from France to avoid persecution. In 1694, she married Robert Dering (1669-1702-4), the 5th son of Sir Edward Dering, moving to Ireland. Their marriage application of March 23, 1694, describes Henrietta as a maiden, about 20, of the Parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
1705 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Unknown Dublin Lady in Grey Dress.

When she was in Ireland, 2 artists there were doing pastel portraits, Edmund Ashfield (d. 1700) & Edward Luttrell, who flourished from 1699 to 1720. Pastels were a relatively new medium at the time. It is possible that she met or even learned from these men, who may have trained in France where the pastels originated.  Her earliest identified extant works are from about 1704 in Ireland. She was a single mother at this time, for she remarried the following year. She was probably painting to help support her family. When her 1st husband Dering died, she became a widow with 2 daughters, one of whom, Mary, later became a lady-in-waiting for the daughters of George II. The pastel portraits she painted during this period were mostly of members of deceased husband’s extended family.
1708-10 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Marianne Fleur Du Gue (Mrs Pierre Bacot)

In 1705, she wed the Reverend Mr. Gideon Johnston (1668-1716), a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, the widowed vicar at Castlemore & who was to become rector appointed by the Bishop of London, of St. Philip’s Church in Charles Town, South Carolina, in 1708. He needed a wife to help with his children, as they prepared to leave for the new world.

Charleston was a fledgling town at this time scrambling to become become the most affluent & largest city in the South, the leading port & trading center for the southern colonies. Many French Protestant Huguenots, seeking religious freedom, were moving to Charleston, where they began building fine townhouses along the harbor's edge & wanted portraits to grace their hallways & establish their family's presence as a power.
1708 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Mary DuBose (Mrs Samuel Wragg)

Henrietta, her new husband, & 3 children from their combined family set sail for his assignment in Charleston. It is said that on a ship stopover in the Madeira Islands, the groom went ashore leaving his new wife & children onboard, only to return after the ship had already sailed for Charleston.

Henrietta landed in South Carolina, with the children in tow, only to discover that the parishioners had appointed their own rector while waiting for the London Bishop's appointee. There was no pulpit or parsonage for the new family; & at that moment, there was no husband to help figure out what to do next.
1710 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Catherine LeNoble (Mrs Robert Taylor)

When The Reverend Mr. Johnston finally arrived in Charleston 12 days later, he decided to oust the locally elected rector from his pulpit. This was not a popular move, & husband Gideon Johnston became bogged down in church politics. He wrote in September, 1708, that he "never repented so much of anything, my Sins only excepted, as my coming to this Place."
1710 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Susanne LeNoble (Mrs Alexander de Chastaigner) (Mrs Rene Louis Ravenel)

In Charleston, the Henrietta Johnston added to the family's meager coffers by drawing 9" by 12" portraits of many of Charleston’s French Huguenot residents & members of St. Philip’s Church. Frustrated by debt & local parish problems, once he arrived in South Carolina, The Reverend Mr. Gideon Johnston complained to the London Bishop in 1709: “Were it not for the Assistance my wife gives me by drawing of Pictures…I shou’d not have been able to live.”
1715 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Mary Magdalen Gendron (Mrs Samuel Prioleu) 1691-1765.

Henrietta's popularity as a portraitist grew, as his popularity declined. She kept painting, making friends, raising his children, keeping house, & acting as his secretary. By the spring of 1711, she'd run out of art supplies, just as her husband's congregation wanted to send some important messages back to the Bishop in London by personal carrier.
1717-18 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Mary Griffith (Mrs Robert Brewton) (Mrs William Loughton) 1698-1761.

Afraid that their now indebted, unpopular clergyman might skip out on his local debts, the church sent Henrietta to London with their missives for the church hierarchy. The little jaunt to London lasted 3 years. Enough time for her to restock her art supplies with French pastels. Throughout her career she typically used 9 x 12-inch sheets of paper in simple wooden frames, which she often signed & dated on the back.
1719 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Judith Wragg

On her return voyage, her ship encountered some frightening pirates; & shortly after her return, her clergyman spouse drowned in a boating accident. She remained in Charleston, when her sons later returned to England. She & her work remained popular in the colonies, even taking her to New York to paint portrait requests there.
1720 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Anne Broughton (Mrs John Gibbes)

Her extant Irish works are all detailed waist-length portraits with well-defined facial features, lively & expressive eyes, attention to clothing details, & dramatic background shading.
1722 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Anne DuBose (Mrs Job Rothmahler)

Nearly 40 works attributed to Johnston survive, many of these in their original frames signed & dated by the artist.
1725 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Elizabeth Colden Mrs Peter DeLancey (1719-1784)

Several of her Charleston portraits retain the time-consuming details of her early Irish works, but most are bust-length with less detailing of clothing & facial features. She seldom painted the hands of her adult sitters.
1725 Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Frances Moore Bayard.

In the colonies, her female subjects usually wore soft chemises, while her male sitters dressed in everyday clothes or in military garb. Her female colonial sitters are draped in either white or a soft gold, with white, ruffled borders on V-shaped neckline. Their hair is generally swept up, with ringlets falling over one shoulder.
Henrietta Johnston (American colonial era artist, 1674-1729) Anna Cuyler (Mrs. Anthony) Van Schaick, ca. 1725

The widow Henrietta De Beaulieu Dering Johnston's portraits became almost dull in the period immediately after her rector husband’s unexpected death. It may have been that she missed her spouse. Or perhaps she was overwhelmed as the entire burden for the family finally fell on her shoulders.

During this mourning period, her subjects’ faces lack the lively expression of her earlier works, clothing details are hazy, & colors are dull. Perhaps she was running low on supplies, working too quickly, or just growing weary.

In the later years of her life, Johnston’s portraits vary in quality & detail. Some revert to her earlier lively facial & clothing details, while others have the far-away look seen after her 2nd husband’s demise. Her New York portraits include small children, which do depict the children’s arms & hands. Whether portraying children or adults, Henrietta Johnston impacted many other portrait painters in early America.

Forsyth Alexander, ed. “Henrietta Johnston: Who Greatly helped…by drawing pictures.” Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991.

Middleton, Margaret Simons. Henrietta Johnston of Charles Town, South Carolina: America’s First Pastellist. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1966.
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Severens, Martha R. “Who was Henrietta Johnston?” The Magazine Antiques. (November 1995): 704-709.