Homage to William Henry Johnson, 20th Century American Painter

william henry johnson

On this day in history, the 20th century American painter William Henry Johnson was born. The South Carolina native led a remarkable art-filled life, observing the attitudes and styles of the world around him and transferring it onto canvas.

Johnson recognized early on that becoming an artist in the segregated South would not allow him to follow his aspirations. At age 17, he traveled to New York City where he was admitted to the National Academy of Design. There, Johnson studied under the American portrait artist, Charles Webster Hawthorne. He excelled in painting, however, Johnson and Hawthorne were realistic. They knew that Johnson would continue to face hurdles as a black artist in America.

In 1926, when William Henry Johnson graduated from the academy, he used private funds raised by Hawthorne and traveled to France. Johnson settled in the former studio of James McNeill Whistler and became engaged in the modernism movement. Surrounded by other expatriates such as Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Johnson quickly fit in, adopting a more expressive painting style.

The artist returned to New York in 1930, settling in Harlem, where his French-inspired landscapes and portraits attracted the New York art world. He received the Harmon Foundation gold medal, and news of his award appeared in newspapers across the nation from Boston to San Diego. Soon afterward, he left for Denmark, to marry Danish weaver, Holcha Krake. For most of the 1930s, Johnson and his wife spent their time in Scandinavia where Johnson’s fascination of “primitivism and folk art” started to influence his work.

In 1938, with the threat of World War II looming, Johnson and his wife sailed back for New York. He joined the WPA Federal Art Project and was assigned to a teaching position at the Harlem Community Art Center. There, he met Selma Burke, Jacob Lawrence and other members of the Harlem Artists’ Guild who were still “riding the crest of the Harlem Renaissance.” Residing in Greenwich Village, Johnson became immersed in Afro-America traditions with his work reflecting an “eloquent, folk art simplicity.”

With his heritage grounded in his southern roots, Johnson recalled the cotton and tobacco fields, rickety wagons, one-room wooden shacks and denim-clad black farm workers. In his paintings such as Deep South and Cotton Pickers, Johnson abstractly transposed the traditional folk narratives, and his memories about the South and its people, by using simplified, colorful forms.

William Henry Johnson

His first major solo exhibition was in May 1941, at Alma Reed Galleries in the heart of the New York art world. Johnson’s exhibition was reviewed by two major art journals, Art Digest and Art News, in addition to New York daily newspapers.

Mesmerized by the stimulating life around him, William Henry Johnson next depicted the new dance rage, the jitterbug. He also documented the hallmarks of 1940s fashion that included broad-shouldered zoot suits, high-heeled shoes and hats as in his gouache, pen and ink with pencil work, High Life, Harlem (1939-1940). He studied the games played by inner-city children as seen in Children’s Play – Drop the Hankerchief (1939-1942). The painter balanced these light-hearted depictions with the other realities of racial violence and poverty.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the artist’s focus shifted yet again. He produced paintings that explored the African-American contributions to the war effort. His paintings contained images of black soldiers engaged in infantry training, ammunition drills, battle, and other war-related support, but not visual propaganda. Johnson addressed the humor and the heroism, as well as the segregation of the military. Examples can be seen in the works, Army Training and Commandos.

Regardless of the content, William Henry Johnson sought to transcend the technical aspects of art so that he could encapsulate the soul of his subject matter. Johnson noted that his objective was to express what he feels, “both rhythmically and spiritually.”

In 1944, after the death of his wife, Johnson turned to religious imagery and a new style – flat paint applications and simplified drawings of human figures, and colorful rhythms. The result was a direct, impassioned quality.

His subject matter turned to historical figures that played influential roles in African-American lives such as in his 1945 Abraham Lincoln, ink on paperboard. This series of paintings, he called his “Fighters for Freedom,” which included world leaders of the day.

Johnson returned to Denmark in 1946 where he was diagnosed with mental illness set on by syphilis. He spent the next 23 years, at a state hospital in Long Island where he died into anonymity. Johnson’s life work includes over 1,000 paintings that are now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection. These incredible works by William Henry Johnson bear witness to one of America’s most remarkable, though often forgotten, painters.

By: Dawn Levesque


Florence County Museum

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Smithsonian American Art Museum Collection

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