Artist Henrietta Johnston was born in northern France around the year 1674. In 1687, her family fled to London to escape religious persecution. In 1694, she married a son of baronet and moved to Ireland. While in Ireland, Henrietta learned to make pastel portraits.
Henrietta’s husband died in 1704, leaving her a widow with two young children. She remarried in 1705. Her second husband, Gideon Johnston, was a minister in the Anglican Church. He had four children of his own, and was in financial trouble. In 1708, he decided to move his entire family to Charleston in the colony of South Carolina, accepting the role of representative for the bishop of London.
The Johnston family continued to have money troubles in their new home, so Henrietta started to work as a professional portraitist for the city’s elite. She is the first recorded professional female artist in the colonies, and the first colonial artist to use pastels. Getting the supplies she needed was difficult, so Henrietta made a trip back to London in 1711. On her return journey, she survived an attack by pirates.
When her second husband died in 1716, Henrietta became the sole provider for her family. Her reputation as an artist spread, and in 1725, she traveled to New York to make portraits for that city’s elite. She died in Charleston on March 9, 1729. Today about three dozen of her portraits survive.
This pair of portraits were some of the first Henrietta Johnston completed after she arrived in the South Carolina colony. The subjects, Pierre Bacot and his wife Marianne, were both refugees of the religious wars in France, something they shared in common with the artist.
Henrietta Johnston’s style was much softer than the pastels being created back in Europe, and her subjects wear simpler clothing. Art historians believe Henrietta did this to use less of her precious pastels, which had to be shipped from England.