Portrait painter, America’s first woman artist. The date and place of Johnston’s birth are unknown; possibly near Rennes in northern France. Her parents were Francis and Suzanna de Beaulieu, French Huguenots, and with them she immigrated to London in 1687. In 1694 she married Robert Dering (1669-ca. 1704), the fifth son of Sir Edward Dering. They settled in Ireland, where Dering died, leaving her a widow with two daughters, one of whom, Mary, later became a lady in waiting for the daughters of George II. Henrietta Dering painted pastels portraits, mostly of members of husband’s extended family, which included such noted individuals as the earl of Barrymore and Sir John Percival (later the earl of Egmont). Where and from whom she learned to render portraits is unknown. They resemble in pose and format the work of Sir Godfrey Kneller, a popular English portraitist of the day. She worked exclusively in pastel on paper, a medium that had not yet gained widespread acceptance. Typically, she signed and dated the wooden backings of her portraits; for example, the reverse of her portrait of Philip Percival bears the following inscription: “Henrietta Dering Fecit / Dublin Anno 1704.” In 1705 she married Reverend Gideon Johnston (1668-1716), a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who was the vicar at Castlemore.
Appointed Bishop’s Commissary in South Carolina by the Bishop of London, in April 1708 Johnston and his wife arrived in Charleston. Reverend Johnston became the Rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, and repeatedly wrote to the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts requesting payment of his salary, which was often delayed. In one letter he states: “were it not for the assistance my wife gives by drawing of pictures…I should not be able to live,” indicating that Henrietta Johnston was compensated for her portraits, making her the first professional woman artist in America. As in Ireland, her sitters were drawn from her circle of associates, including numerous French Huguenots (the Prioleaus, Bacots, duBoses) and members of her husband’s congregation, such as Colonel William Rhett. In contrast to the deep earth tones and sophistication of her Irish pastels, the ones crafted in Charleston are lighter, simpler, and smaller, indicative of the preciousness of her materials, all of which had to be imported. In America, her female subjects usually wore delicate chemises, while the male sitters were dressed in street clothes or, occasionally, armor. Each sitter's posture is erect, with the head turned slightly toward the viewer. Typically, large oval eyes dominate the subject's face. About forty portraits are extant. Pastels by Henrietta Dering Johnston are in private collections in Ireland, and in American museums, including: Gibbes Museum of Art, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Greenville County Museum of Art. She died March 9, 1729 in Charleston.
Forsyth Alexander, ed. “Henrietta Johnston: Who Greatly helped…by drawing pictures.” Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991.
Middleton, Margaret Simons. Henrietta Johnston of Charles Town, South Carolina: America’s First Pastellist. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1966.
Severens, Martha R. “Who was Henrietta Johnston?” The Magazine Antiques. (November 1995): 704-709.
Martha R. Severens