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 Henrietta De Beaulieu Dering Johnston  (1670 - 1728)

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Lived/Active: South Carolina / Ireland      Known for: pastel portrait, architectural

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Ad Code: 3
Henrietta Deering Johnston
from Auction House Records.
Colonel John Moore and His Wife Frances Lambert Moore of New York, 1725
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Dublin, Ireland to a French Huguenot family, Henrietta Johnston was America's first pastel painter, doing nearly forty portraits of prominent people in Charleston, South Carolina.  Her body of work is an important documentary of leading people in an important area in American history, and about 30 of her works survive. 

Since pastels were not available in America when she arrived, she obviously brought supplies with her.  She used 9 x 12 sheets of paper and put the paintings in wooden frames that she signed, dated and wrote location.  Her portrait faces are fairly realistic likenesses, but the bodies are stiff in appearance, perhaps painted from the wooden arms that were found in her effects.

In 1694, she married Robert Dering, and the couple lived in Ireland.  Six pastel paintings survive from her time between 1703 and 1705 of living in Ireland, and each is signed with her name, date and location. In 1705, after her first husband's death, she married Gideon Johnston, an Anglican clergyman, who had two daughters.  In 1707, he was named Commissary of the Bishop of London in South Carolina and Rector of St. Philip's in Charleston, and the couple arrived in South Carolina the following year.

On the journey, her husband got left behind in Madeira and nearly lost his life from being marooned on an island.  Henrietta and the children arrived in Charleston Harbor without him.  When the couple finally reunited nine months later, he had a long convalescence from exposure; they had to fight for his clergy job because someone tried to take it away from him; and during the time of trying to resolve this matter, they had neither income nor provided housing.  Also Henrietta caught malaria, as swamps that attracted mosquitoes surrounded Charleston. 

To help support the family which by now was heavily in debt, Henrietta, going house to house through the muddy streets of Charleston, did pastel portraits of local aristocrats as well as the family doctor, which perhaps was barter for him treating her husband.  In a letter to Bishop Gilbert Burnet back in England, Gideon Johnston wrote:  "Were it not for the assistance my wife gives me by drawing of pictures (which can last but a little time in a place so ill peopled) I shou'd not have been able to live." (Rubinstein, 22) 

The source of her art training is unknown, but it has been suggested she learned her skill from "Simon Digby, Bishop of Elphin, who did portraits and who was her husband's superior in Ireland." (Rubinstein, 21)

The Johnston's life was exceedingly difficult as Charleston was a very primitive place to live, and the tension about Gideon's appointment created factions in the community with those opposed to him openly jeering at him and his family.  He returned briefly to England, and while he was gone the town was flooded by two hurricanes, the roof blew off his newly constructed church, and frightened persons from the countryside filled the town. 

Amazingly, Henrietta continued to be productive with her pastel portraits of people whose pleasant expressions gave no hint of the struggles of living in that place at that time.  

In 1716, Gideon Johnston drowned in Charleston Bay, leaving his widow with many debts.  In 1725, unsuccessful at getting a widow's pension from the church, she traveled to New York with a niece and her stepdaughters, and they stayed with friends.  Judging by some of her portrait subjects including the Lieutenant Governor of New York, Cadwallader Colden, she was trying to pursue the pension she felt she was owed.  Also included were members of the John Moore family of Charleston, where Moore had served as Secretary of the settlement.

In March, 1727, Henrietta Johnston died, having returned to Charleston, where she is buried in the cemetery of St. Philips Church.

Source:
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

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