A native of New York City, David Johnson taught himself to paint. Johnson was a member of the Hudson River School and he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1849. The next year, he studied under Jasper Cropsey, painting alongside him in the New Jersey countryside.
Johnson had established a studio on East 15th street by 1857. He joined the National Academy of Design in 1859 and his career as an artist blossomed. His popularity crested in the mid-1870s with the flourishing of the Hudson River School. In 1877, the Paris Salon committee accepted Johnson’s Housatonic River. After that time, his work began to echo the French Barbizon School.
The large landscapes of the Hudson River School passed out of fashion in the late 1870s, as more young American artists returned from their European studies with news of continental experiments. Johnson’s work retained a popular audience but gradually lost professional acclaim. The artist retained a studio in New York until the late 1890s.