William H. Johnson

William Henry Johnson (March 18, 1901–1970) was an African American painter born in Florence, South Carolina, is becoming more widely recognized as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century.  Known primarily for his majestic Scandinavian landscapes and his witty and poignant scenes of African American daily life, Johnson has made an indelible impact on American art.  Yet he is one of those rare artists whose influence can be felt beyond his art, for his life story has elements of a purely American drama, which inspires and encourages anyone familiar with it. 

William H Johnson 

William H. Johnson

Johnson was from the rural South, where he had to overcome poverty, racial prejudice, and a grade-school education, to become one of the country's leading artists.  Through the force of his personality and with a steadfast belief in himself, Johnson created an art entirely his own, original and fresh.  He grew up in poverty and like many of his generation had little education.  His father, who supposedly was a prominent member of the white community, did nothing to help.  His mother later married and had four more children. The stepfather was a hard worker and all was well for a time, until he was injured in an accident and unable to work.  Johnson's mother cooked, washed and ironed for white families to feed her children.  As the oldest child, William, did fieldwork during the season, helped out at home, and looked after his younger brothers and sisters.

He began copying comic strips at an early age.  A teacher who saw him drawing pictures in the dirt gave him some art supplies--pencils and paper.  By the time he reached his teens, William had left school to help support his family, but had decided to become an artist and go to New York to study.

 William H Johnson - Street Musicians 1939-1940

William H. Johnson, Street Musicians (1939-1940)

Johnson left his native South Carolina in 1919 with his uncle who was seeking work. He worked for several years before he could afford to study to study at the National Academy of Design in New York where he worked at various jobs to pay for his training at the Academy.   Although he was acknowledged as the most talented artist in his class of 1926, he was passed over for a traveling scholarship because of his race.   Johnson came to the attention of Charles Hawthorne, a teacher who took him under his wing. Hawthorne helped him financially by providing summer work and arranging for free tuition.  Rather than see Johnson flounder in the United States, his teacher, Charles Hawthorne, gave Johnson $1000 so that Johnson could travel to Europe.  This act of faith and generosity was pivotal in Johnson's life, for it provided the seed from which his career flourished.   

In l922, he went to Paris to study after winning a number of prizes in art shows.  He remained in Europe, mainly in France, Denmark, Norway, and then in Tunisia (where he and his wife studied weaving and pottery) for twelve years, more than half of his working life, during which time he created hundreds of works, exhibited widely and established a strong reputation.

 William H Johnson - Self Portrait 1929

William H Johnson, Self Portrait, 1929

Johnson was influenced by the work of the prominent artists of the day, including Gaugin and the Expressionist Chaim Soutine.  Painting in the Expressionist style, Johnson began to exhibit his work in the late 1920s.  Like other Expressionists, his work was intense and emotional.  During this period he met and impressed the African-American expatriate artist Henry Tanner.  However, Johnson's work did not receive the recognition and the public interest for which he had hoped. 

In 1929 he met his future wife, a fellow artist fifteen years his senior who specialized in weaving and ceramics.  In 1930, he married Danish weaver Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist who he met in Cagnes-sur-Mer (a town in southern France).  Traveling with Holcha Krake, he had the opportunity to visit museums throughout Europe, which must have been both an exhilarating and a depressing experience.  He became aware of just how difficult success would be as an artist in Europe, where he was just one talent among many.  Moreover, he faced the additional handicap of prejudice as an African-American artist. 

Hoping that winning recognition in America would be a step forward, he returned to the U.S. late in 1929.  Another black artist he had met in Paris had told him that winning an award from the Harmon Foundation would be easy, so he entered six pictures in their competition.  The Harmon judges were greatly impressed by his work, awarding him a gold medal and picking four pictures to exhibit in a show.  The excited Johnson headed back to Florence, South Carolina, to visit family and show his paintings to his mother.  His work was exhibited locally and a story appeared in the local newspaper.  However, several days later, he was arrested and jailed by the police while he was painting a local building.  Johnson's anger at his unjust arrest led him to return to Europe.  He did not return to Florence again for fourteen years.

With the outbreak of World War II, Johnson returned to the United States in 1938 with his Danish wife, artist Holcha Krake, where he continued to paint and exhibit having by then becoming well-known for his bright, bold paintings of African-Americans.  But life was difficult as Johnson could not find work and the interracial couple experienced bitter prejudice.  It was impossible to find a sponsor in Depression-era America, and Johnson had to stand in line behind other, more successful artists to get a position with the Works Progress Administration (the WPA).  Finally, he was hired to teach art at a local community center.

During this period, Johnson began to change his style of painting.  Previously he had painted landscapes and people in what is referred to as a "full brush" style based on the influence of the Expressionists.  Now he began to paint in what he termed a "primitive" style, using bright and contrasting colors and two dimensional figures and objects.  His paintings of the African-American experience, focused at first around religious themes.  They projected a sense of peace not found in his earlier work.  As time went on, Johnson began to paint scenes of the everyday life of African-Americans.  As his style evolved from realism to expressionism to a powerful folk style (for which he is best known), his work always evokes transitory and sublime sensations that have been often mimicked but never matched. 

William H Johnson - Self-portrait 1930-1935 

William H. Johnson, Self-portrait, ca. 1930-1935

However, he continued to experience bad luck.  First a fire destroyed much of his work and possessions.  Then his work was shown in two exhibits.  It seemed that success was about to follow but with the onset of World War II, public attention turned elsewhere.  Like many other artists, Johnson began to paint patriotic pictures of soldiers.  In early 1943 at about the time his work began to be noticed, Holcha died of breast cancer.  To deal with his grief, he took work in a Navy Yard, and in 1946 left for Denmark to be with his wife's family.  By the time he left for Denmark in 1946, his mental illness had begun to worsen.  Johnson had already begun to exhibit odd behavior before his wife's death but now the grief stricken man began a gradual descent into mental illness.  He soon fell ill himself from the effects of advanced syphilis.  Traveling to Norway for an exhibit, he became confused and was found lost in the streets.  He was sent back to New York in 1947 to enter the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island where he spent the remainder of his life.  He stopped painting in 1956 and died on January 1, 1970.

 William H Johnson - Training for War

William H. Johnson, Training for War

Before his death he donated all of his work to the National Museum of American Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  In 2006, the Smithsonian American Art Museum organized and circulated a major exhibition of his works, “William H. Johnson’s World on Paper”.  The exhibition traveled to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 2007. 

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REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS


Day, Jeffrey. "W.H. Johnson painting must be saved." The State (January 28, 1996), F3.

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Here you will find the works of one of the most prolific African American artists. Based in Paris, France, this selection includes current masterpieces as well retrospectives from a body of over 30 years as an ethnic artist painting in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe. Your choice of paintings, prints, posters, postcards, puzzles, memorabilia, T-shirts, collectibles, accessories,and more, is only a click away. Read more

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