Born on April 15, 1856, Edward Johnson had a gift – he could paint. Edward was born in Danville, Missouri, but he moved many times over the years with his parents. Edward’s parents were both Protestant religious artists, his father a traveling gospel singer and his mother a mildly successful poet among Southern congregations. Edward’s parents fostered his love of art and encouraged his painting from a young age, and they taught Edward that the true beauty and value of any art is in how that art serves God and His Kingdom. Edward spent many years of his young life on the road with his parents, improving his painting skills. The family even lived in the West for a while, in Kansas, Oregon, and California. But in the winter of 1876, everything changed. Edward’s entire family contracted influenza. Edward was better soon, but his parents suffered immensely in the winter months, both eventually succumbing to the illness in March of 1877.
Edward’s only other family member was his maternal uncle, Charles. Charles was a banking executive and a high-level politician in Chicago, and he disapproved of his sister’s marriage, her transient lifestyle, and her focus on art and religion. Charles told Edward he could live with him in Chicago if he gave up his painting. But the twenty-year-old Edward was too invested in his art, and in his parents’ legacy, to ever give up his painting. Instead, he packed his things and moved to New York City, where he hoped to find new patrons for his painting.
Edward struggled for a couple years in New York. He couldn’t find a strong audience for his religious paintings, and he didn’t have a steady job to pay rent. He lived in several tenement houses until he couldn’t even afford that anymore, and he began living with a friend in the basement of the Holland House hotel on 30th Street.
Edward painted all day and all night, and only sold his paintings at busy times during the day, like noon and 4pm. One day in January, 1885, a burly-looking man approached Edward, told him he liked his paintings, and asked if he would come with him to his home. He wanted to commission Edward to paint him a large wall hanging for his main room, but he needed him to see the size and layout of the room beforehand. Edward went with the man, but once he was there, he panicked, worrying that this would be his only customer for many years. Out of desperation, Edward waited for the man to leave the room, and then took anything valuable he could find and ran out the door. The man ran after him, and the constable on the block joined the chase. The two men caught up with Edward, and he was arrested for grand larceny. On January 30, 1885, he was sentenced to two to six years in Sing Sing Prison.