Henrietta Johnston is known as the first professional female artist in America and the first pastelist. A Huguenot by descent, Johnston and her family fled France for England in the late seventeenth century. She married Robert Dering, a member of the English gentry with appointments and property in Ireland. After Robert Dering's death in 1703, she married Gideon Johnston in 1705 who became the rector of Saint Philip's Church in Charleston. Upon their arrival in 1708, church politics prevented the new rector from receiving his wages. Gideon Johnston acknowledged his wife's contributions to their survival when he wrote in a 1709 letter, "Were it not for the assistance my wife gives me by drawing pictures . . . I shou'd not have been able to live."
While pastels suited Johnston's artistic sensibilities, allowing her to work on an intimate scale with a delicate touch, little is known about Henrietta Johnston's artistic training. She practiced her craft on both sides of the Atlantic having executed numerous portraits of Dering family members and friends while in Ireland. Questions remain whether she received her training in France or Ireland before coming to Charleston. Less than forty works are attributed to her today. The Gibbes Museum has the largest public collection of her works.
Marie DuBose Wragg was probably the eldest of Jacques and Mary Dugue DuBose's (DuBosc) three daughters. Her father died before 1706, for in that year the widow DuBose married Dr. John Thomas. Thomas cared for Gideon Johnston and his family, and in a letter to the Society, Gideon wrote: "Dr. John Thomas a ffrenchman, the only Pson that deserves the name of a Phisician in this place has been extreemly kind and generous to me . . . he has constantly attended us on all occasions . . . When I call'd for a Bill, and did conclude by a Moderate Computation I cou'd owe him not less than 40 . . . he told me he wou'd not take one single farthing from me and was only sorry that he cou'd not restore me to my health as soon as he cou'd wish." Marie may have married Samuel Wragg (d. 1750) by the time her portrait was drawn in 1708; she definitely was married in 1710, the year her stepfather mentioned her in his will. Her husband was the brother of Joseph Wragg, her sister Judith's (Gibbes Museum of Art) husband, and both Wraggs were partners in various mercantile interests.
The drawing relates strongly to Henrietta's Irish period. For example, the muscle tension and vertical lines that characterize Henrietta's Irish work are evident in this example. Although it is fainter, shading on one side of the subject adds depth; this is seen in Henrietta's Irish drawings. Also, Marie Wragg's eyebrows are almost as well-defined as those of most of the Irishmen. The frame of this portrait is original. It is not known exactly how many of Henrietta's American portraits are in their original frames and backboards. Those that have been examined are all stained black. The corners of these frames are also mitered, molded hardwood (beech) over cores of a softwood (a spruce) with mitered corners and a perpendicular, tapered spline joint. Those original backboards that were examined were found to be a type of spruce. View the Image »