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David Claypoole Johnston, 1798-1865
David Claypool Johnston selfportrait
Click image for more information
 David Claypoole Johnston and his family lived at 32 Payson Avenue in Dorchester during Johnson's later years. Johnston was an important 19th century artist in the pioneer period of American graphic arts. Collections of his individual paintings, engravings and lithographs are owned by Harvard's Houghton Library, the American Antiquarian Society and the Boston Athenaeum. Johnston was called the American Cruikshank by biographer Charles Brigham due to the satirical nature of Johnston's work. Johnston was the first American artist to manage a successful career based on humorous work.

The son of William P. Johnston, a Philadelphia printer and bookkeeper, and Charlotte Rowson Johnson, an actress who had emigrated from England in 1793, David was born in 1798. At age 16 he was apprenticed to a Philadelphia engraver in whose shop, David learned all the techniques of engraving and etching. Although he set up his own business, his failure to find enough work in the field of graphic arts to support himself led him to become an actor on the Philadelphia stage. He came to Boston during the theater season of 1825, and, while here, he produced caricature portraits of leading actors and actresses from which he achieved favorable notice from local publishers.

Among other works, Johnston provided the drawing for the first dated sheet music cover with a lithographic illustration, "The Log House," which was published in 1826. He did several portraits of well-known figures including Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams. Perhaps he is best known for his book illustrations. His publication entitled Scraps undoubtedly followed the design of George Cruikshank's Scraps and Sketches, and each issue included a set of nine to twelve humorous caricatures of contemporary life. He illustrated over forty books, including Don Quixote and Lives of the Apostles. He was best known for satire but he was capable of serious work as this last title shows along with other publications such as Surgical Observations on Tumours by John C. Warren. He also was a painter of some repute, painting landscapes and portraits.

David and his wife Sara had five children who grew to adulthood, and all five were artists in their own rights. David was a tremendous influence on their lives and careers. His daughters, Charlotte and Sarah are mentioned in more detail in the booklet Costumes of the Dorchester Historical Society. Sarah was universally admired by critics, and her charcoal drawings were compared to those by men. In a notice of an exhibition in 1888, The Boston Post stated on February 3rd that Sarah's pieces were "by far the best things in the exhibition and masterly in every way." Charlotte was an actress and member of the Museum Stock Company as well as a reader and concert pianist. Another daughter, Mary, was known for her abilities in drawing, writing poetry and harp playing. John became known for paintings of cattle and animals with landscapes. Thomas was quite famous for portraits of Lincoln, Whittier, Emerson, and Garrison among others.

David was said to have great wit and charm and interest in family life. He died at his home in Dorchester in 1865.

For more information, please consult:

American Antiquarian Society website:

Brigham, Charles. David Claypool Johnston, the American Cruikshank. Worcester, 1940.

Croce, Elaine Marilyn. Costumes of the Dorchester Historical Society. Dorchester, 1992.

Dunlap, William. History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. New York, 1965.

Hamilton, Sinclair. Early American Book Illustrators and Wood Engravers, 1670-1870. Princeton University Press, 9168.

Johnson, Malcolm. David Claypool Johnston: American Graphic Humorist, 1798-1865. Boston, 1970.

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Illustration from Scraps by David Claypoole Johnston
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Created: August 15, 2003   Modified: November 11, 2010