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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Henrietta Johnston

Amongst amateur, and even professional, artists today, one of the most common figures to be found is the artistically inclined woman in the role of the "painting mother." In some cases it's a situation where a female artist became a mother and merely continued her work, perhaps on a somewhat reduced scale while in the midst of raising a family. Probably more common however, especially amongst amateurs, is the mother who has turned to art as a respite from the daily grind of motherhood. In today's world at least, once the kids are in school, their mother has some time to herself, to be herself, to become that which motherhood and young children have forced her to put aside temporarily. Quite often, her art interests centers on the lives of her children, and not uncommonly, this blooms into the art of portraiture. If she paints for herself, her children are ready models, which often leads to works of other people's children and finally other people. It can begin as a hobby, but if she's good, especially once the kids are gone, it can become a career.

Henrietta Johnston came to this country in 1708. She came alone with three kids, landing from the boat in Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina. She had originally been traveling with her husband, Gideon, who had been sent by the Anglican Bishop of London to become the rector of St. Phillips Church. However, during a stopover in the Madeira Islands, it would seem the good reverend went ashore and in returning at a late hour, literally "missed the boat." To make matters worse, upon arrival, she found the parishioners had appointed their own rector who, along with his family, weren't in the mood to depart the pulpit or the parsonage. Though I'm sure she and her brood were not left literally standing on the docks, neither was their plight very comfortable--a young French-Irish mother and children with no visible means of support. Fortunately, she had certain invisible means at her disposal to survive. She was an artist.

Portrait of Henriette Chastaigner,
1711, Henrietta Johnson
Portrait of Col. Samuel Prioleau,
1715, Henietta Johnson

Henrietta De Beaulieu Dering Johnston's training and background would suggest she was at best a talented amateur who had a knack for portraiture. Surprisingly, she didn't use oils, or watercolors, but French pastels (a relatively new medium at that time). Her work immediately became popular in the small coastal city. Her 1711 Portrait of Henriette Chastaigner (above, right), or her 1715 Portrait of Col. Samuel Prioleau (above, left) suggest she may have had some previous training, but the likenesses are somewhat stylized, especially in the area of the eyes. Even when her husband finally managed to make it to Charles Town to join her, life was not easy. Deeply in debt, she worked hard to help make ends meet. So hard, in fact, she ran out of supplies. She had to make a lengthy trip to London to get more. On the way back she even had a run-in with pirates. Then, shortly after her return, Gideon was killed in a boating accident. For the rest of her life, she and her family were something of a "charity case." But her work remained popular, at one point taking her to New York to fulfill commissions--an artist-mother who, almost by accident, became the first working female artists on this side of the Atlantic.

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