Johnson, William Henry 1901–1970
William Henry Johnson 1901–1970
Born in rural South Carolina at the beginning of the twentieth century, William Henry Johnson spent an itinerant life devoted to art. He proved himself an outstanding academic painter during his years of study at the National Academy of Design in the 1920s; then, he went to Europe to learn the techniques of European modernists such as Chaim Soutine and Paul Cezanne in Paris. While living in Denmark and Norway in the 1930s, he created many portraits and landscapes reflecting the northern European influence of expressionism—an artistic style that aims to depict the subjective emotions and experiences of the artist. In his most mature period though, Johnson turned his back on academic painting and European styles to develop his own brand of primitivism in depicting African-American themes.
Johnson moved to New York City from Florence, South Carolina, in 1918, at the age of 17. The illegitimate son of a white man and a black woman, he was obliged to provide financial help to his mother and four younger siblings. Johnson had endured years of irregular school attendance and was used to working odd jobs. He supported himself in New York with any available means of employment, including work as a stevedore on the city’s docks.
Johnson settled in New York at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of literary and artistic activity among blacks centered in New York City’s Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance lasted for about a decade before the stock market crash of 1929 marked its end. Throughout the 1920s, though, there was a flourishing of African-American writers, artists, musicians, and others who sought to create new works of art and literature based on their own African-American culture. Johnson was an integral part of that movement.
Introduced to art through cartoons he saw in a local newspaper, Johnson became a skilled painter at New York’s National Academy of Design. He was accepted to the Academy in 1921 and studied there for five years under Charles L. Hinton. At the same time, he continued working odd jobs as a hotel porter, cook, and stevedore to support himself and his family. During his time at the Academy, Johnson distinguished himself as one of the institution’s most outstanding students, winning the prestigious Cannon Prize from the Academy’s Life School for figure painting, first place from the Hallgarten Prize Fund for painting, and the School Prize for his work in still life.
Born March 18, 1901, in Florence, SC; died April 13, 1970 on Long Island, NY; son of Henry and Alice Johnson; married Holcha Krake (a Danish ceramicist and weaver), 1930 (died, 1943). Education: Attended National Academy of Design, studying under Charles L. Hinton, beginning 1921; studied at Cape Cod School of Art, summers, 1923-1926.
Hotel porter, cook, and stevedore in New York City, c. 1918-25; began formal art study, 1921; performed maintenance work and studied art in Paris, 1926; first one-person show, Paris, 1927; returned to New York, 1929; settled in Kerteminde, Denmark, 1930; painted in Norway and Sweden, 1935-38, and in New York, 1938-45; left the United States for Denmark, 1946; diagnosed with paresis in Oslo, Norway, 1947; confined to Islip State Hospital, New York, until his death in 1970.
Works acquired by the Harmon Foundation, 1956; foundation ceased operations, 1967, donating 1,154 of Johnson’s works to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts (now part of the National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC); Smithsonian Institution originated a major retrospective of Johnson’s work, 1971, and an exhibition focusing on the artist’s Scandinavian years, 1982; works included in “Harlem Renaissance: Art in Black America” exhibition originated by the Studio Museum in Harlem, 1987; major retrospective, fall 1991.
Awards: Cannon Prize, 1924, School Prize, 1925-26, and Hallgarten Prize, 1925-26, all from National Academy of Design; Harmon Foundation competition, first prize and gold medal, both 1929.
Johnson had the privilege of working with a number of esteemed artists early in his career. He studied with American realist painter George Luks in the mid-1920s in exchange for maintenance work at Luks’s studio. And during the summers from 1923 to 1926 he received instruction from Charles W. Hawthorne at the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In the fall of 1926, with Hawthorne’s monetary support, Johnson was able to go to Paris and study under modern European painters. That winter, Johnson maintained a studio in Montparnasse, a Parisian arts center. His still life and portrait paintings from this period reflect the influence of Cezanne, a nineteenth-century French painter whose later works played a key role in the development of abstract art, and of Soutine, a modernist known for his textured brushstrokes and for the overall boldness and irregularity of his works. While in Paris, Johnson also met Henry Ossawa Tanner, who was considered the leading black painter of the time.
Johnson’s first one-person show was held at the Students and Artists Club in Paris in 1927. Soon after, he moved to Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France and stayed there for about a year and a half. He had a one-person show in Nice in 1928 and the following year met the Danish ceramicist and weaver Holcha Krake, whom he would marry in 1930. They traveled throughout Europe to Corsica, Belgium, Germany, and finally to Odense, Denmark, to visit her family.
By this time Johnson had dabbled in a variety of artistic methods, seeking to define his own style. He enlarged upon his own academic training to include the contemporary painting techniques he discovered in Europe. He borrowed from realism and impressionism alike, vacillating between objective, accurate representations of reality and evocations of sensory impressions. His style of painting changed as he came under the influence of Cezanne, French expressionist painter Georges Roualt, and especially Soutine. He also admired the rugged and direct style of nineteenth-century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. For the next several years, Johnson would continue to embrace one style after another as he sought to develop his own individual technique of painting.
Toward the end of 1929, Johnson returned to New York and rented a loft. He entered a self-portrait and five other paintings in a juried competition sponsored by the Harmon Foundation. Through its annual juried competition, the foundation provided much needed backing to black artists. Alain Locke, a Harvard-educated Howard University professor, author, and major Harlem Renaissance figure, had persuaded white philanthropist William E. Harmon to sponsor such a competition in 1926. “At a time when very few individuals or organizations gave consistent support to black artists and their institutions, the Harmon Foundation provided money, advice, advocacy, and information,” explained Richard J. Powell in Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation.
With the support of fellow artist and Harmon Foundation juror George Luks, Johnson’s entry was accepted for the competition, even though it was submitted after the foundation’s deadline. Johnson won the William E. Harmon first prize and gold medal for “distinguished achievement among Negroes.” His success in the 1929 event marked the beginning of a longstanding relationship with the foundation.
Johnson’s landscapes and portraits from the late 1920s sparked a critical debate among the New York art critics over his reliance on European and Euro-American art standards. Unlike black artists Palmer Hayden and Laura Wheeler Waring—his award-winning predecessors—Johnson clearly represented a new generation of blacks in the art field. Commenting on the artist’s flair, Powell noted: “Youthful, artistically inclined toward the experimental, and bohemian in demeanor, Johnson embodied the era’s fantasy of the dreamy, European-based, American painter…. His exploration of a modern art vocabulary set him apart from many of his fellow black artists.”
In 1930 Johnson returned briefly to his hometown of Florence, South Carolina. His paintings of the Jacobia Hotel, an old inn that had been converted into a bordello, caused him to be censured by the local establishment. He ultimately left the town, vowing never to return, but before his departure some 135 of his paintings were exhibited there. His works from this time demonstrate an evolution in his style. Johnson had become a virtuoso expressionist painter.
Johnson married Holcha Krake in May of 1930, and they settled in the Danish fishing village of Kerteminde on the island of Funen. He felt a kinship with the lifestyle of the Danish villagers, comparing his own life in the rural South to life in their fishing village. According to the essay on Johnson that appeared in Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, “It was in Kerteminde and its vicinity that many of the landscapes Johnson praised as his best works were painted.” Johnson and Krake held two-person exhibits whenever possible.
Before leaving for Denmark in 1930, however, Johnson had visited Locke in Washington, D.C. As a major spokesperson for black artists during the Harlem Renaissance, Locke had succeeded in gaining financial support for black artists from organizations like the Harmon Foundation. Locke espoused the doctrine that black artists should create works based on their African heritage. Johnson maintained an artist-agent relationship with the Harmon Foundation while in Europe. The foundation aided him by restretching, framing, and photographing his paintings. Assisted by Locke, the Harmon Foundation offered these and other services to some of its award winners and marketed their works in exchange for a small percentage from sales.
However, in Johnson’s case, the foundation had difficulty in selling his works, even though they were exhibited in many group shows of African-American artists in the 1930s. He provided them with paintings done primarily from 1928 to 1930, and some observers speculate that these French-inspired American subjects may have been too similar to works by van Gogh and Soutine. Although widely reviewed and critically discussed by Scandinavian art critics and collectors, Johnson’s work did not attract much critical commentary in the United States during the 1930s. As a result, Johnson sold his works on his own to Scandinavian collectors, who appreciated his paintings of picturesque villages and desolate northern European landscapes.
Johnson and Krake traveled to Germany, France, and Tunisia in 1932. Johnson painted many watercolors and did woodcuts during this trip. Together with his wife he studied ceramics in Nabeul, where they learned about African pottery and local arts and crafts. The experience fed Johnson’s devotion to observing the primitive ways of native people.
Johnson created a large body of portraits and landscape paintings during his Scandinavian years. In 1935 he moved to Norway, where “his Expressionism took on a moodier, more dramatic ambience [under the] influence of the Northern European belief in an evocative, spirit-filled landscape,” according to Powell. Norway provided the artist with a more isolated and stark setting, and his expressionistic works from this time bear a newfound richness in color, nature, and spirituality. Powell asserted, “Although the subject of these works was ostensibly just the landscape, Johnson often infused the mountains, fjords and foliage with a lively, almost animated quality.”
Johnson also painted in Sweden before returning to his home in Kerteminde in 1938. With the prospect of a German-occupied Denmark and World War II on the horizon, Johnson and Krake left once again for New York in November. Johnson’s Scandinavian years had not only put him in touch with the modern northern European painters of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden but had also exposed him to a variety of folk cultures. He witnessed the high regard these cultures received in Europe from artists and intellectuals. Upon his return to New York in late 1938, Johnson altered his style of painting, focusing mainly on flat, non-illusionistic renderings. In addition, his subject matter changed from Scandinavian landscapes to scenes of Harlem and South Carolina.
Back in Harlem, Johnson turned to subjects and themes that celebrated the black experience. Black figures—often set around black Christian themes—became recurring elements in his paintings. Works such as “Nativity,” “Descent from the Cross,” and “Mount Calvary,” all painted around 1939, present an all-black family of Jesus. An earlier work, “Jesus and the Three Marys,” shows a crucified black Christ before three black women.
Although earlier artists like Aaron Douglas and Malvin Gray Johnson had brought black religious subjects into their works, Johnson “changed the course of artistic interpretations of Black American themes in Christianity,” according to an essay in Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Johnson reinterpreted the many familiar subjects relating to the life and death of Jesus and also painted literal interpretations of spirituals in such works as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” both from the late 1930s.
Upon his return to New York, Johnson discovered that the Harmon Foundation had changed its priorities from supporting individual artists to promoting art education in black schools. The foundation provided him with letters of introduction to various New York art galleries, and he gradually made his own contacts among New York artists, gallery owners, and collectors. Around this time he joined the mural section of the WPA Fine Arts Project in New York.
While in New York from 1938 to 1945, Johnson did hundreds of works that expressed various aspects of the black experience in America. As Powell wrote, “Ironically, it was during this phase of estrangement between Johnson and the Foundation that Johnson flowered into an important chronicler of Afro-American life, an aesthetic ideal long championed by the Harmon Foundation.” Harlem’s lively cabaret scene and nightlife inspired him to capture the spirit of what he was experiencing. He created a number of vastly different paintings on political and social themes, all based on his Harlem experiences and memories of South Carolina. “Cafe” (1939-40), for instance, shows a Harlem couple sharing a drink at a cafe table, while “Chain Gang” (1939-40), which was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, depicts two black prisoners in striped clothing working on a road gang.
Johnson’s paintings of the South also include slices of family life—church scenes, farmers working, even memories of his own family. In “Mom and Dad” (1944), the artist’s aging black mother is seen sitting in a rocking chair in front of a portrait of his white father, which hangs on the wall. The painting serves as Johnson’s comment on his illegitimate birth and the father he was never allowed to know.
Johnson’s concern with politics is evident in paintings like “Harlem Moon” (1944), in which police and citizens are engaged in a bloody fight that evokes visions of community violence. During this period the artist also painted portraits of black heroes, abolitionists, world leaders, and other prominent black figures, including scientist George Washington Carver in several poses—accepting awards, working in his laboratory, and displaying numerous byproducts he created from peanuts and sweet potatoes.
Johnson experienced turbulence in his personal life during his later years in New York. His wife died of cancer in 1943, and around the same time, his studio was badly damaged by a major fire. Before returning to Denmark in 1946, he executed “Minde Kerteminde,” an unusual depiction of his memories of life in the Danish fishing village. Consisting largely of static, even heraldic portraits of Danish fishermen and relatives along with remembered landmarks and buildings, the work “ushers forth a different Johnson, one whose familiarity with modern art language comes in direct opposition to a ‘primitive’s’ point of view,” according to Powell in an article for Black American Literature Forum.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s painting career would soon come to an untimely end. Severing all ties with the Harmon Foundation, he returned to Denmark in 1946, only to be diagnosed the next year as having paresis, a type of paralysis. In 1947 he was confined indefinitely to a New York State mental hospital on Long Island. Although details of the last decades of his life remain unclear, it is known that Johnson never painted again. After 23 years in the hospital, the artist died quietly on April 13, 1970.
Breeskin, Adelyn, William H. Johnson, 1901-1970, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971.
Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, The Studio Museum in Harlem/Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Powell, Richard J., Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, Rizzoli, 1991.
Reynolds, Gary A., and Beryl J. Wright, editors, Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation, The Newark Museum, 1989.
Black American Literature Forum, Winter 1986.
New York, March 16, 1987.
People Weekly, May 25, 1987.
Smithsonian, November 1971.
A twenty-five minute biocritical video titled The Life and Art of William H. Johnson is available from Reading & O’Reilly, 1992.
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