William H. Johnson (1901-1970)
Self Portrait: Who I Am
William Henry Johnson combined European Modernist aesthetics with southern folk tales and legends to create fine art paintings that startled audiences throughout Europe and the United States.
Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901. His parents, Henry Johnson and Alice Smoot, were both laborers. Obsessed with art at an early age, Johnson spent much of his childhood copying cartoons from the local paper. However, as the oldest of five children from a poor family in the segregated south, he was acutely aware of the obstacles he would face as an artist. Despite this realization, and with the encouragement of a devoted high school teacher, Johnson remained determined to become a painter.
In 1918, at age 17, Johnson left South Carolina and traveled to New York in the hopes of pursuing an artistic career. He found work as a hotel porter, and then took on additional jobs as a short order cook and a dock worker. Eventually, he was able to save enough money to enroll at the prestigious National Academy of Design. His talent immediately came to the attention of painter Charles Webster Hawthorne, who took the young man under his wing and encouraged his bold painting style.
After Johnson graduated from the art school in 1926, Hawthorne arranged for his protégé to continue studies in Paris. Opportunities for black artists in America were scarce in the 1920s, and Hawthorne felt that Johnson would benefit from the more tolerant climate in Europe. Arriving in Paris, Johnson rented a studio that had once belonged to James McNeill Whistler and began to experiment with his painting style, incorporating many influences from the French painters working around him.
For three years, Johnson lived in Paris and in southern France. He made friends with many prominent artists and writers from all over Europe including German expressionist sculptor Christoph Voll. The two artists found they had a great deal in common and in the summer of 1929, Voll invited Johnson to join his family on a trip through Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg. On this journey, Johnson fell in love with Voll’s sister-in-law, Danish weaver Holcha Krake.
Although Johnson’s ties to Europe were steadily increasing, he felt it was important for him to establish himself as an artist in the United States. Toward the end of 1929, he left Krake and returned to New York. His bold use of paint—often applied to the canvas in thick lines squeezed directly from the tube—quickly attracted attention, and in 1930, he was awarded the gold medal for painting from the Harmon Foundation. However, Johnson was startled by the residual prejudices against black artists when he was arrested during a visit to South Carolina while painting a building that had become a brothel. The experience deeply disturbed Johnson and he decided to return to Europe.
Self Portrait with Pipe, 1937
Johnson moved to Kerteminde, a small fishing village in Denmark in late 1930. Throughout his short return to the United States, he had remained in close contact with Holcha Krake and they were married soon after his arrival in Denmark. The couple lived happily in the quiet maritime community for the next eight years. They exhibited their work jointly throughout Europe and traveled extensively into North Africa and Scandinavia, searching for inspiration for their art. However, in 1938, it became apparent that Europe was on the verge of another war, and Johnson and Krake decided to leave Denmark for New York with the hope of avoiding the conflict.
On arrival, Johnson joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project and took a position as an instructor at the Harlem Community Arts Center. In Harlem, a lively community of artists, writers, and musicians embraced the young couple. Johnson and his wife had arrived just at the moment when black artists were making their voices heard in the New York art world, due in part to the substantial financial support provided by the WPA.
In May of 1941, Johnson had his first American solo exhibition at Alma Reed Galleries on 57th Street. At the time, he was painting in a primitive style, employing flat areas of bright color to depict southern folk tales and vibrant scenes of urban life in Harlem. As the United States entered World War II, Johnson turned his attention to the contributions made by black soldiers. In scenes of boot camp and training drills, he was able to celebrate the bravery of African American troops while also exposing the humiliation of segregation.
Johnson’s exhibitions received wide critical acclaim, but he was only able to enjoy this success for a short period. In 1942, a fire in his studio destroyed much of his recent work and all of his supplies. Two years later, in 1944, Holcha Krake died suddenly, leaving her husband grief stricken. Johnson decided to return to his hometown of Florence, South Carolina, in an attempt to find comfort with his family. Although he remained productive by making a series of portraits of family members, many of his old friends found him irritable and unstable.
Johnson returned to New York as the war came to a close, but continued to feel overwhelmed by his grief. In 1946, he returned to Denmark where his wife’s family quickly became concerned with his increasingly erratic behavior. He was diagnosed with a mental illness as a result of syphilis, and was institutionalized in Norway in 1947. Later that same year, he was transferred to Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island where he remained for the next 23 years. Johnson died in obscurity at the Islip Hospital in 1970.
Like so many innovative artists, Johnson’s value came to be celebrated only after his death. He is lauded for a series entitled Fighters for Freedom, depicting great American leaders including Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, which he created even as he slipped into madness. Many of Johnson’s paintings are held in major collections throughout the United States and Europe, including the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
Still Life, 1921
Nat Turner, 1945
Breakdown with Flat Tire, 1940-41
Chain Gang, 1939
Jitterbugs (I), 1940-41
Jitterbugs (III), 1941-42
Jacobia Hotel, 1930
Harbor Under the Midnight Sun, ca. 1935
Harmon Foundation Exhibitions, 1930-1937
Paintings by William H. Johnson, Alma Reed Galleries, New York, 1941
American Negro Art: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, Newark Museum, New Jersey, 1944
William H. Johnson: A Retrospective Exhibit, Countee Cullen Branch, New York Public Library, 1956-1957
Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 1987
The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism, Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., 1989
Homecoming: William H. Johnson and Afro-Americana, 1938-1946, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1991