William Johnson (artist)

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William H. Johnson
William H. Johnson Self-Portrait.jpg
Self-portrait, c. 1930-1935
Born (1901-03-18)March 18, 1901
Florence, South Carolina
Died April 13, 1970(1970-04-13) (aged 69)
Central Islip, New York
Nationality American
Patron(s) Charles Hawthorne
Street Musicians (1939-1940), by William H. Johnson.

William Henry Johnson (March 18, 1901–January 1, 1970) was an African-American painter born in Florence, South Carolina. He became a student at the National Academy of Design in New York.[1] His style evolved from realism to expressionism to a powerful folk style for which he is best known.


Johnson was born March 18, 1901 in Florence, South Carolina, to Henry Johnson and Alice Smoot.[2] He attended the first public school in Florence, the all-black Wilson School on Athens Street. One of his teachers, Louise Fordham Holmes, included art in her curriculum. Johnson also copied the comic strips in the newspapers.[3]

He moved from Florence, South Carolina, to New York City at the age of 17. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for classes at the prestigious National Academy of Design.[4] He worked with the painter Charles Webster Hawthorne, who raised funds that allowed Johnson to go abroad to study.[2]

He spent the late 1920s in France, where he learned about modernism.[5] During this time, he met the Danish textile artist Holcha Krake in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Upon his return to the United States in 1929, Johnson was encouraged by artist-friend, George Luks to enter his work for recognition into the Harmon Foundation Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in the Fine Arts Field. Johnson was awarded the Harmon gold medal in the fine arts field in January 1930.[6] Johnson also visited his family in Florence, where he painted a considerable number of new works, one of which, Jacobia Hotel, almost got him arrested.[6] During this visit, Johnson was able to publicly exhibit his paintings twice. The first occasion was at a meeting of the Florence County Teachers Institute on February 22, 1930. Alice Johnson worked at the local Y.M.C.A., and her boss, Bill Covington, also arranged for Johnson to have a brief exhibition of 135 of his paintings there, on April 15, 1930.[6]

Later that same year, Johnson returned to Europe where he married Holcha Krake.[4] Johnson and his wife spent most of the 1930s in Scandinavia, where his interest in folk art influenced his painting. They returned to the United States in 1938, as Nazi sentiments increased in Germany and Europe.[5] The inter-racial couple were to experience prejudice in the United States as well.[7] Johnson taught at the Harlem Community Art Center[2] and immersed himself in African-American culture and traditions, producing paintings that were characterized by their folk art simplicity.[8]

In 1941, Johnson held a solo exhibition at Alma Reed Galleries.[2] However, although he enjoyed a degree of success as an artist during the 1940s and 1950s, he was never able to achieve financial stability. In 1942 a fire destroyed his studio, his artwork and his supplies.[2] In 1944 his wife Holcha died from 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. Johnson soon fell ill himself, from the effects of advanced syphilis. He returned to New York in 1947 to enter the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island, where he was treated for syphilis-induced paresis.[9] He spent the last twenty-three years of his life there.[4] He stopped painting in 1956[10] and died on January 1, 1970.


After his death, his entire life's work was almost disposed of to save storage fees, but it was rescued by friends at the last moment.[8] The Harmon Foundation gave more than 1,000 paintings, watercolors, and prints by Johnson to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (then the National Museum of American Art) in 1967.[4]

In 1991, the Smithsonian American Art Museum organized and circulated a major exhibition of his artwork, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson,[11] and in 2006, they organized and circulated William H. Johnson's World on Paper.[12] An expanded version of this exhibition traveled to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (February 3 - April 8, 2007),[13] the Philadelphia Museum of Art (May 20 - August 12, 2007),[14] and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama (September 15 - November 18, 2007).[13]

In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Johnson's honor, recognizing him as one of the nation’s foremost African-American artists and a major figure in 20th-century American art. The stamp, the 11th in the American Treasures series, showcases his painting Flowers (1939-1940), which depicts brightly colored blooms on a small red table.[15]


  1. ^ Driskell, David; Lewis,, David Levering; Ryan, Deborah Willis; Campbell, Mary Schmidt (1987). Harlem Renaissance : art of Black America. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem. ISBN 0-8109-1099-3. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "William H. Johnson Biography Painter (1901–1970)". The Biography.com website. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  3. ^ "William H. Johnson Biography: Growing Up". Florence County Museum. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c d Powell, Richard J.; Puryear, Martin (1991). Homecoming : the art and life of William H. Johnson. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 9780393311273. 
  5. ^ a b Gopnik, Blake (2006-06-25). "William H. Johnson's Taste of Europe". The Washington Post Company. Retrieved 2006-07-06. 
  6. ^ a b c "William H. Johnson Biography: 1930s Visit to Florence". Florence County Museum. Retrieved 14 March 2015.  line feed character in |title= at position 19 (help)
  7. ^ Botsch, Carol Sears. "William H. Johnson". University of South Carolina-Aiken. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  8. ^ a b "William H. Johnson". Smithsonian American Art Museum. United States of America. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  9. ^ "The Art and Life of William H. Johnson". Black Art Depot. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  10. ^ "William Henry Johnson (1901 - 1970)". AskART. Retrieved 2006-07-06. 
  11. ^ Poesch, Jessie (1995). "Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (review)" (PDF). Southern Cultures 1 (3): 367–369. doi:10.1353/scu.1995.0100. 
  12. ^ "William H. Johnson's World on Paper". Smithsonian American Art Museum. 
  13. ^ a b Kantrowitz, Jonathan (June 25, 2013). "William H. Johnson’s World on Paper". Art History News. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  14. ^ "William H. Johnson's World on Paper". Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
  15. ^ "William H. Johnson Forever Stamp Available Today". United States Postal Service. April 11, 2012. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 

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