Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy - Levi Johnson

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Image of Levi Johnson


Levi Johnson

c. 1830-1835
30 1/8 in. x 25 1/8 in. (76.52 cm x 63.82 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Accession Number: 1957.12


In the early nineteenth century, increasing numbers of Americans sought to commission likenesses of themselves and members of their family. To meet this demand, artists of varying abilities plied their trade as portrait painters, some seeking a living as itinerants who traveled the countryside in search of work. Compared to portraits by nationally recognized artists, these canvases were more modestly priced and thus appealed to middle-class Americans who were eager to record their appearance for posterity, celebrate family ties, and affirm their social status within their communities.

Probably married in the early 1830s, the Johnsons may have commemorated their engagement or marriage by commissioning these portraits. Delilah's off-the-shoulder blue dress with balloon sleeves, her braided hair wrapped tightly on her head, and the loom-woven, beaded necklace, decorated with the word Friendship, and tucked into her waist band (concealing a timepiece), are all stylistic features in keeping with women's fashion of the early 1830s.1 The book in her hand, plainly identified as the New Testament, is a potent symbol signifying both her literacy and her role as the family's moral instructor. Levi Johnson holds a book entitled Coke's Instituts [sic], signaling that he is a learned man and a lawyer by profession. Written by Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), attorney general to Queen Elizabeth and chief justice under James I, the first Stuart king of England, the Institutes addressed English land law, the ancient charters (including the Magna Carta), criminal law, and the system of court procedure. This four-volume set was the first published work in English attempting to present comprehensibly the laws of the country and it remained for three centuries the primary means of legal instruction in England and America. Although it was read by many of America's Founding Fathers and politicians, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Chief Justice John Jay, Daniel Webster reportedly found it so difficult to understand that it caused him to "despair and almost give up law for school teaching.”2

The son of Joseph and Betsy Johnson, Levi Johnson was born on 23 March 1792, in Readfield, Maine. His first wife, Polly Morrill, whom he married on 13 April 1815, may have died prematurely from complications in giving birth to William Henry, the couple's son. The child, born on 13 June 1818, lived for less than half a year, preceding his mother in death by only three months.3 In 1830, Levi moved to Canaan, Maine, where he is listed without a wife or dependants in the federal census records for that year.4

Employed as an attorney in Canaan, Johnson was active in town and state government, serving as town treasurer in the years 1833-35, 1841, and 1845, as well as holding the position of town moderator in 1835 and 1843. In state politics, he represented Somerset County, District Ten, in the Maine State Senate for the year 1836.5 By his second wife, Delilah Cook, he had five children, naming two sons after United States presidents: George Washington, who was born on 29 September 1837; William Henry Harrison, on 3 October 1840; Joseph M., on 21 June 1844; Robert Vaughn Montague, on 6 September 1846; and Arabella Steuart, on 2 November 1847.6 Recorded as insane in the 1860 census, Levi Johnson died the following year on 25 February 1861.7

Seated in matching chairs upholstered in red fabric with brass tacks, Levi and Delilah Cook Johnson face each other in complementary portraits, framed by swags of red drapery and classically inspired architectural backgrounds. Several stylistic features suggest the hand of an artist familiar with likenesses ascribed to the Borden Limner, a painter currently identified as John S. Blunt, who lived and worked in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.8 The brilliant red pigment used to define the strongly modeled curtains, the bright yellow color of Johnson's vest, the placement of the figures against open windows, as well as the rendering of the subjects' features, including their slightly up-turned mouths, diagonal jawlines, and the presentation of Mrs. Johnson's hand in a triangular form with one finger extended, all mark these portraits as similar to works attributed to the Borden Limner. The notably absent green tint to the flesh tones, however, and the use of a white, or cream-colored ground in these likenesses rather than the red commonly found in Borden Limner portraits, suggest the possibility of another artist at work.

Charlotte Emans Moore, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 317-18

1. Information concerning these beaded necklaces came from Lynne Bassett, Curator of Textiles and Fine Arts, Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts, in a telephone conversation with the author, 30 August 1995. See now Lynne Zacek Bassett, "Woven Bead Chains of the 1830s," Antiques 148 (December 1995), pp.797-807. For an example of another individual wearing such a beaded necklace, see the portrait of Mrs. Pearce, attributed to Erastus Salisbury Field, in American Folk Portraits: Paintings and Drawings from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, ed. Beatrix T. Rumford (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1981), p. 98, fig. 66. I would like to thank Barbara R. Luck, Curator, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia, for calling this portrait to my attention; see Luck to the author, 21 August 1995, Addison Gallery Archives.

2. Catherine Drinker Bowen, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1957), pp. ix-x, 505-24, esp. 513.

3. Difficulty obtaining information concerning Levi Johnson's early life has been compounded by the existence of a second Levi Johnson, born in Readfield, Maine, eleven years later on 27 August 1803, the son of Levi and Mary Longfellow Johnson. The two have been conflated into one individual in town records for Readfield, Maine, with Levi Johnson, Jr., recorded as the husband of Polly Morrill and father of William Henry. However, since this second Johnson would have been only twelve at the time of the marriage in 1815, this record is inaccurate; see Robin L. Lint, Deputy Town Clerk, Readfield, to the author, 15 August 1995, Addison Gallery Archives. Correct information cites the portrait subject, born in 1792, as the husband of Polly Morrill, born on 3 March 1792, and the daughter of Levi and Bathsheba Johnson Morrill of Readfield. See Individual and Marriage Records in the International Genealogical Index owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, photocopies, Addison Gallery Archives.

4. Federal Census Record for Canaan, Somerset County, Maine, 1830, p. 30; see also J. W. Hanson, History of the Old Towns Norridgewock and Canaan, Comprising Norridgewock, Canaan, Starks, Skowhegan, and Bloomfield, from their early settlement to the year 1849 (Boston: J. W. Hanson, Coolidge and Wiley printers, 1849), p. 332.

5. Hanson, p. 158; Lynn Randall, Law and Reference Library, State of Maine, Augusta, to the author, 21 July 1995, Addison Gallery Archives.

6. Barbara Small, Tax Collector, Canaan Town Hall, Canaan, Maine, to the author, 8 September 1995, Addison Gallery Archives.

7. Federal Census Record for Canaan, Somerset County, Maine, 1860, p. 899; Robin L. Lint, Deputy Town Clerk, Readfield, to the author, 15 August 1995, Addison Gallery Archives.

8. The name "Borden Limner" was ascribed by Robert Bishop to the painter of a group of portraits sharing stylistic similarities to the portraits of Captain Daniel and Mary B. Jenney Borden, owned by the Old Dartmouth Historical Society and Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts; illustrated in Robert Bishop, "John S. Blunt," Antiques 112 (November 1977), p. 964, figs. 5, 6. Subsequently, Bishop identified John S. Blunt as the artist of these likenesses. However, Blunt's signature has been documented only on landscapes; no portraits have been located bearing his name. For information pertaining to John S. Blunt and this group of portraits, see Robert Bishop, "John Blunt: The Man, the Artist, and His Times," The Clarion (Spring 1980), pp. 21-39; Bishop, "John S. Blunt," pp. 964-71; Robert Bishop, The Borden Limner and His Contemporaries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1976). For assistance in gaining access to the John S. Blunt files, Robert Bishop Papers, Museum of American Folk Art, New York the author thanks Ms. Stacy Hollander, Curator.

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