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 William Henry Johnson  (1901 - 1970)

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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia/South Carolina / Denmark/Norway      Known for: naive genre, figure, still life painting, serigraphs, drawing

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Ad Code: 2
William Henry Johnson
from Auction House Records.
Street of Cagnes Sur Mer
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known for distinctive modernist images of African American life, William Johnson died destitute and deranged from syphilis, having spent the last twenty-three years of his life in the Central Islip Sate Hospital on Long Island.  He stopped painting in 1956.

One of his chief sponsors and exhibitors for his art was the New York Harmon Foundation, which, in 1929, presented him the "Award for Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in the Fine Arts Field." Most of his work was handed over to the Harmon Foundation, now defunct, by a court that deemed his works without value.  In turn the Foundation donated the work to the Smithsonian Institution, which had a retrospective of his work in 1970.

In 1997, a lawsuit was filed by his relatives claiming the Smithsonian Institution had over 1000 works on paper illegally.

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
One of the most well known artists with Southern roots is William H. Johnson. He was born in Florence, South Carolina in 1901 and started his artistic journey by copying comic strips from the newspaper. Due to his financial situation and race relations there were very few opportunities to study art as an African American in the South so he moved to New York City in 1918. After working various odd jobs for three years he was finally able to scrape together tuition money to attend the National Academy of Design. While there, he won numerous awards and honors and gained the support of one of the instructors, Charles Hawthorne. During his time at the Academy, Johnson worked as a studio assistant to another teacher, George Luks, and spent summers studying at Hawthorne's art school in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

When Johnson did not win the coveted Pulitzer Travelling Scholarship, Hawthorne and Luks raised the money for him to study in Europe. Johnson's journey to Europe opened his eyes to a life without the discrimination that he faced in the United States. While there he met the African American expatriate artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and also studied the works of Munch, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Soutine. During his travels he met a Danish textile artist, Holcha Krake, and eventually married her and the couple settled in Denmark.

Johnson's paintings during his time in Europe usually consist of thick, energetic brushstrokes which are almost frantic - perhaps influenced by his study of the Expressionists. Johnson did not want to paint in a realistic fashion. He felt that "to paint a picture that reaches the level of art, the painter creates something personal and uses the landscape as the motif for creating this feeling of art. Otherwise it isn't art but just a copy of nature."

With the threat of World War II and Johnson's desire to "paint his people" the couple moved to New York in 1938 and Johnson began working for the Works Progress Administration. At this time his painting technique changed to a more schematic style with simple contours and flat planes of color. In a way they are similar to the cartoons that he copied as a child. Many of his paintings at this time were based on various series: representations of Negro life in Harlem; Negro life in Florence, SC; fighters for liberty; and wartime scenes. Johnson was also inspired by Negro spirituals, music, and art. He said, "my aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me."

Tragedy struck in 1942 when Johnson's studio burned down and the following year, Johnson's beloved wife died of cancer. Johnson traveled back to visit Holcha's relatives in Denmark in 1946. He was later found confused and disoriented wandering the streets in Norway. Johnson was diagnosed with syphilis-induced dementia and was returned to New York City in 1947. He was placed in the Central Islip State Hospital where he remained for the rest of his life. With the onset of his disease, Johnson never painted again. It was truly a tragic end for one of South Carolina's most talented native sons. The majority of Johnson's paintings were given to the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art - Smithsonian Institution).

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Born in 1901, Johnson left the poverty and racial restrictions of his life in South Carolina at age eighteen, to live with his uncle in New York City.  In 1922 he enrolled as a full-time student at the National Academy of Design, where he was encouraged by Charles Hawthorne, his teacher and mentor.  Johnson continued his studies at the Academy until 1926, and with Hawthorne¹s generous financial help, he left for Paris in 1927 to further develop as an artist.

After three months in Paris, Johnson moved to Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France where he met and fell in love with Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist who was traveling with her sister and brother-in-law, the German artist, Christoph Voll. After visiting Denmark with Holcha, Johnson returned to the United States later that year.  In New York he was awarded the prestigious Harmon Foundation gold medal award and made a brief trip home to Florence in March 1928, where he painted several portraits of family and friends, as well as paintings of local scenes, such as the eruptive view of the Jacobia Hotel (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), and a brilliant, van Gogh-like Landscape with Sun Setting, Florence, S.C. (Howard University Gallery, Washington, D.C.)  At the conclusion of his visit in April, Johnson was honored with an exhibition at the Florence YMCA where 135 of his paintings were on view.

Johnson returned to Denmark in 1930 to marry Holcha and to begin in earnest his career as an artist.  The couple settled in Kerteminde, a small fishing village on the island of Funen where both artists could devote themselves fully to the making of art. In Holcha, Johnson found a most encouraging spouse and together they traveled the region, with Holcha arranging joint exhibitions of their work and newspaper interviews.  This exhibition features some of Johnson's best work from the 1930-31 period including Langegade, Kerteminde, a view of the town's main street, which counterbalances the turbulent, animate forms of the old church building on the right and the town hall on the far left of the canvas; Harbor, Kerteminde, with its agitated perspective, contrasting tones, and slashing brushstrokes; and Gammel Gaard (Old Farmhouse), a more pastoral, but still expressionistic work with its intense brushwork and color.

In 1932, the couple traveled to Tunisia where they learned from local artisans the making of ceramic tiles, a practice which would significantly affect Johnson's next phase of painting.  Beginning in 1933, he used a palette knife to thickly apply paint with the resulting surface often appearing very glossy and almost tile-like (Draby Church, c. 1934).  In 1935 the couple departed for Norway, where Johnson had a one-man show at the prominent Blomqvist Gallery in Oslo.  Included in this exhibition were several of the paintings shown here, including the portrait of
Erling Mikkelsen (c. 1934), a work revealing the artist¹s approach towards a greater simplicity of forms, with the use of heavy paint and impasto.  The exaggeration and placement of the boy's hands are elements he would later use in his American portraits.

From Oslo, he and Holcha ventured slowly northward through the popular scenic tourist region of Gudbrandsdal, arriving in the late summer for an extended residence in Volda on the western coast of Norway.  Volda Fjord in Spring (c. 1936-37) is similar to Johnson's previous Danish works in the way the paint is applied, but because of Norway's special light and majestic natural beauty, it reveals his new use of brighter and bolder colors.

In 1938, Johnson and Holcha returned to Denmark briefly before departing for New York City to escape the growing danger of Nazi Germany.  In New York, Johnson could not support himself solely on the making of art, so he took a job teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center where he also produced a significant amount of work.  One of two such works in this exhibition is the 1939 tempera painting, Street Scene, New York, which probably was a scene in Harlem.

In New York, Johnson increasingly turned his attention to portraying African-American life in a dramatic, flattened style.  For the first time in his career he also began to paint works from memory, creating images of farming, family, and religious life in rural South Carolina.  In the early 1940s, as Johnson accomplished his stated goal, "the painting of my own people," he translated the intensity of his earlier, European-based expressionism into a naïve-primitive style that depicted vibrant characters and cultures of black urban and rural life, as well as religious and
historical themes.

Distraught after Holcha's death from cancer in 1944, and disappointed that American collectors did not buy his works as readily as did Danes and Norwegians, Johnson decided that he would move to Europe after the war.  After an initial exhibition, Johnson fell ill in 1947, and was found to be suffering from symptoms brought on by advanced syphilis.  Late that year, he was returned to New York where he was institutionalized at the state hospital in Long Island.

Johnson never painted again, and his art went into storage under the care of a court-appointed guardian.  Most of these works were ultimately acquired by the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian Museum of American Art) which in 1991 mounted a major retrospective exhibition, "Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson."

The art works in this exhibition descend from different Danish and Norwegian collectors, all of whom acquired directly from the artist in the 1930s.  Then, between 1994 and 1997, each of these works was acquired by Steve Turner, collector, dealer and co-author of William H. Johnson: Truth Be Told.

Roberta Sokilitz 2002
©Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.

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William Johnson is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists

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