David Johnson is considered to be one of the leading second-generation artists of the Hudson River School. Practically self-taught, Johnson reached a high level of professional skill relatively early. Artist Benjamin Champney noted that Johnson "...quietly and modestly attained to a very high rank as one of the leading landscapists of New York." Johnson's style of painting was a technique that combined a high-keyed color scale with an extreme attention to detail. Later in his career, as the influence of French art became increasingly familiar to American artists, Johnson's linear and highly detailed style softened.
He studied briefly under the landscape artist Jasper Cropsey, but by then was already an accomplished painter. Johnson also accompanied the Hudson River School artists John W. Casilear and John F. Kensett on sketching trips throughout New England. Most of his professional life was spent in New York City, but like many other landscape artists of his era, his summers were devoted to painting at popular Northeastern locales like the White Mountains, Lake George, and the Catskills. Johnson was a founding member of the first art colony started at the southern end of Kaaterskill Cove near the Catskill Mountains in the 1840's.
Johnson’s paintings from the 1870s are his most sought after; this was the decade that he reached tremendous success and popularity. He was awarded a first class medal in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and exhibited work at the Paris Salon in 1877. His paintings can be found in many leading private collections and institutions including: Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX; De Young Museum, San Francisco, CA; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Fine Arts-St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, FL; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; New York Historical Society, New York, NY; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA; Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT.