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Frank Tenney Johnson

 (1874 - 1939)
Frank Tenney Johnson was active/lived in California, Iowa.  Frank Johnson is known for western genre, landscape, and nocturne painting.

Frank Tenney Johnson

Biography from the Archives of askART

Born near Big Grove, Iowa, Frank Tenney Johnson, became one of the most famous early 20th-century painters of Western genre.

He was raised on a farm on the old Overland Trail where he observed western migration of people on horseback, in stage coaches, and in covered wagons.  At age of 10, he moved with his family to Milwaukee, and he apprenticed there to panorama painter F.W. Heine (1845-1921), whose specialty was painting horses.  From that time, Johnson was ever studying the horse and became noted for his ability to portray it accurately.  Then he studied with Richard Lorenz, a member of the Society of Western Painters, and he gave Johnson valuable techniques as well as great enthusiasm for the West.

Inheriting a small amount of money allowed Johnson in 1895 to go to New York to study at the Art Students League for five months.  Then he returned to Milwaukee and worked as a free-lance illustrator until he and his wife could afford to return to New York, and this time he studied with John Twachtman, Robert Henri, and William Merritt Chase.

In 1904, he went to the Rocky Mountains and Southwest for Field and Stream magazine, and this was a life-changing trip in that he set his style and subject matter for the remainder of his life.  He especially learned to love the skies during the day and at night, and one of his trademarks became his night scenes.  To achieve a certain luminosity, he carefully studied the skies in Maxfield Parish's paintings.  He was so successful in his Field and Stream assignment that he continued to make many trips West including a 1912 visit to Arizona where he, on a cross-country train trip, stayed several days at Winslow.

During the 1920s, he settled in Alhambra, California and shared a studio with Clyde Forsythe, and his easel paintings began to outsell his illustrations.  He did a series of murals in a famous Los Angeles movie house called the Cathy Circle Theater.  His painting technique to achieve textural effect was to work quickly, using brushes, palette knife, and his fingers.

In the 1930s, deciding to spend his summers away from Alhambra, Johnson built a cabin and studio on the north fork of the Shoshone River in Wyoming, just outside the east gate of Yellowstone Park.  For seven years, from 1931 to 1938, he spent much time hiking in the park and painting scenes of its unique landscapes.

It has been written that he was a man who "represented the best in the Old West."  He was six feet two inches, handsome, virile and admired.  For one of his exhibits at the Grand Central Art Galleries at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, Amon Carter bought the entire exhibition.  Shortly afterwards, Johnson went to a dance in Los Angeles, kissed a pretty girl and died the next morning (January 1, 1939) from meningitis.

Peggy and Harold Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Peter Hassrick, Drawn to Yellowstone

Biography from the Archives of askART
The following biography is from Channing Avery:

Internationally famous for his cowboys and his moonlight scenes on the open range, Frank Tenney Johnson was born on June 28, 1874, in the Iowa hamlet of Big Grove.  He roamed a countryside along the banks of the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark had traveled in 1804.

Johnson absorbed all he could from teachers with whom he came in contact and then went on to New York and continued his art studies.  Before long his work was attracting such favorable public response that he became a magazine illustrator and began doing book jackets for Zane Grey and other Western writers.

He became good friends with Clyde Forsythe and then both moved to California where they shared a studio in Alhambra.  They became joint founders of the Biltmore Art Gallery in Los Angeles.  Johnson by now was developing his "Johnson moonlight" technique so that his paintings showing cowboys under the stars became nationally famous.  He was at the height of his career when he suddenly died in 1939.

Since his death his paintings have grown steadily in popularity and when one becomes available, it now commands a big price.


McCracken, Harold. The Frank Tenney Johnson Book. A Master Painter of the Old West. Garden City, New York, Doubleday and Co., Inc., c1974.

Ainsworth, Ed. The Cowboy in Art. New York and Cleveland, World Publishing
Company, c1968

Biography from Santa Fe Art Auction
Comments from the Santa Fe Art Auction House 11/2001 catalogue:

Johnson was a master of the nocturne painting (in the words of Harold McCracken, "the Frank Tenney Johnson nocturne was something he developed to the point of perfection where it can be considered pretty much his own art form"), and he refined his own special technique for the genre.

Johnson primed his canvases with a chalk-white base mixed with a portion of vermilion or Spanish red.  After he had completed the under painting, he put the canvases aside for a period of a year or more to set.  The entire process was said to have accounted for the depth and luminosity of Johnson's finished works.

Evening Ride is a characteristic Johnson nocturne featuring the subject matter that was his most enduring: the solitary mounted cowboy, high in the saddle, alone in the Western landscape.

Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery
Frank Tenney Johnson was born in Coucil Bluffs, Iowa, not far from the Overland Trail. During his childhood, he saw the steady stream of people heading west in all forms of horse-drawn conveyance. This early exposure to the American West was critical in leading Johnson towards the Western landscape as an inspiration for his work. The resulting body of work is a moody and romantic depiction of a long-gone America, rendered in a style that has become practically a genre all its own.

At the age of ten, Johnson moved from Iowa to Milwaukee, WI. There, he took an apprenticeship with F.W. Heinie, a prominent panoramic painter. After a year with Heinie, Johnson apprenticed for Richard Lorenz, a painter and former Texas Ranger who specialized in depictions of horses and western scenes. It was probably during his time with Lorenz that Johnson decided to focus on western subjects himself. He also started illustrating for regional papers and publications, in order to save money for further training.

Further training, as with many of the artists who populated New Mexico in the early twentieth century, took place at the Art Students League in New York, where Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman, Kenneth Hayes Miller and F. Louis Mora were in the process of teaching perhaps the last great batch of pre-modernists. Though highly stimulated by the training, Johnson was only able to stay for five months, after which he returned to Milwaukee to work and save money in an effort to return to New York. He was able to do so after a time and, upon returning, established an important professional relationship with Emerson Hough, the editor of "Field & Stream" magazine.

At Hough's urging (and on Hough's dime), Johnson traveled to Hayden, Colorado, where he tagged along with a group of cowpunchers in order to sketch their way of life. Though primarily an artist, Johnson also wrote accounts of his time in Colorado for "Field & Stream." After Colorado came Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Johnson attended a "Frontier Days" celebration; after Wyoming, Johnson traveled to New Mexico, where he observed the Navajos and their threatened way of life. This trip changed Johnson from an academic artist with an appreciation for the west to a truly western artist.

Of particular interest to him, in stark contrast to other western artists of the time like Frederic Remington and C.M. Russell, were the more quotidian scenes of the West. Specifically, Johnson focused upon scenes featuring horses, especially at night. Johnson painted a great number of pieces that featured horses tied up outside of saloons, inns or trading posts for the night, the moonlit night punctuated by the warm glow from the lamps inside. In this, he can be considered a pioneer, as his night pieces still serve as the archetype for such work in western art.

Johnson became quite successful through his work for "Field & Stream." He was chosen to illustrate books by the prominent writer Zane Grey, and his gallery shows sold briskly. In fact, one particular show, at the Grand Central Art Galleries at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, sold out opening night. In fact, one man had bought out the entire show: Amon Carter. Having achieved financial security and comfort, Johnson followed his good friend Clyde Forsythe to Alhambra, CA, where the two established residency and shared a studio.

California treated Johnson well. He and Forsythe founded the gallery at the Los Angeles Biltmore, and their studio became a gathering place for famous contemporaries like Charlie Russell, Ed Borein and Norman Rockwell. Johnson opened his own Los Angeles studio, to augment his studios in Cody, Wyoming and New York City. He sold pieces to the National Gallery in Washington and, in 1937, became an Academician of the National Academy of Design. He and Borein also started a trail riding group in Santa Barbara called Rancho Visitadores, which still meets to this day.

At the very zenith of his career, a terrible event befell Frank Tenney Johnson. After kissing his hostess at a party in December of 1938, Johnson either contracted or passed spinal meningitis; he was dead the next day, and his hostess succumbed to the disease two weeks later. For an individual who had always preferred warm, peaceful scenes and who had created such time-consuming, painstaking pieces (because of his chosen technique of creating chalk-white bases on his pieces mixed with a small amount of vermilion and then left to dry, a single canvas could take more than a year to complete) it was an abrupt and inglorious end to a fantastic career.

Biography from Jeffrey Morseburg
Frank Tenney Johnson was known as "The Master of Moonlight."  He was so adept at depicting Western subjects under the light of the moon that he became forever associated with cowboys and Indians under the stars.

Johnson was born in Big Grove, Iowa and grew up on tales of cowboys and Indians and settlers whose road west began nearby.  He was always artistically inclined and he took his first lessons from Richard Lorenz, a German-born artist in Milwaukee who painted western scenes as well as local midwestern subjects.  During his early studies Johnson began taking sketching trips farther west to the Indian reservations of the Dakotas.  He traveled east to study at the Art Students League in New York in 1895 where he studied with Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase.  Because Johnson was an accomplished draftsman who had mastered the art of drawing and had a vivid imagination, he became an illustrator and his first extended trips west were sponsored by Field and Stream magazine whose editor Emerson Hough became an important mentor.

In 1904 the painter spent the summer working and sketching on a cattle ranch near Hayden, Colorado, an experience that shaped his career.  That same year Johnson attended an early Frontier Days celebration in Cheyenne, Wyoming and ventured south to Navajo country. As his work in improved and matured Johnson gained valuable experience illustrating the popular western novels of Zane Grey.  In his trips to Navajo country, Johnson noticed that because of the intense heat of the day, the Indians often traveled at night and as he began to sketch Indians under the light of the moon he must have realized that this was a subject that he could make his own.

Gradually, Johnson forged a career as an easel painter whose work was exhibited in art galleries not simply used to illustrate books or cowboy serials in magazines. Collectors began to recognize that there was something different about his work that made him stand apart from his older contemporaries Charles Russell and Frederick Remington.

While those artists were associated with the wild and wooly West of gunfights, stampedes and plains warfare, Johnson's West was generally one where the fight had gone out of its inhabitants. Their West was vast, arid and difficult, but it was now settled.  He portrayed cowboys taking a smoke, Indians trading and Mexicans relaxing.  In 1920 he moved to the little art colony on Champion Place in Alhambra, California, in the San Gabriel Valley, where his friend Clyde Forsyth lived and the illustrator Norman Rockwell often spent his summers. Johnson and Forsyth shared a studio and helped found the Biltmore Salon, essentially an artist's cooperative in Los Angeles. His work became popular in California and in the last decade of his life he built a studio near Yellowstone where he spent the summers sketching and painting. Johnson was felled by felled by spinal meningitis after kissing a socialite at a New Years Eve party in 1939.

Jeffrey Morseburg
copyright 2008

Biography from Nedra Matteucci Galleries
Frank Tenney Johnson was among the most reflective, introspective artists ever to paint the West. His love for the vanishing West of the cowboy was perhaps engendered in him by the close proximity of his birthplace near Council Bluffs, IA, to the Overland Trail. Even as a young man Johnson sensed that his career would have to be that of an artist of the Old West.

In 1895 Johnson made his way to New York City, where he eventually studied at the Art Students' League and with such fine art notables as J.H. Twachtman, Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. His first professional work came to Johnson in the form of illustration commissions for Zane Grey novels and for Field and Stream and other periodicals. In many ways, however, his first professional work came in the form of a 1904 trip to Colorado and the Southwest, a trip that Johnson was to make many times in his life. The trip seemed to bring into focus an impression of the Old West that made Johnson famous.

Johnson was an excellent draftsman. He used the best materials available to an artist. As did others, Johnson painted with brush, knife and fingers. Above all, Johnson painted scenes of the West that were tableau-like; he rendered romantic, poetic Western genre scenes that differed entirely from the stop-action, narrative works of his contemporaries, C.M. Russell and Frederic Remington. Johnson painted scenes that reflected his preference for non-violent subjects, scenes that showed the cowboy, the Indian or the Spanish settler in a pastoral context. Among these quiet, philosophical canvases two types stand out: his paintings of horses and his night scenes.

Eventually, Johnson became a renowned artist with studios in Los Angeles; Cody, Wyoming; and New York City. He was collected by major institutions including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Royal Palace in Copenhagen; and Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum. In 1937 Johnson became an Academician of the National Academy of Design.

At the peak of his career Johnson's life came to an unusually unfortunate end. In December, 1938, Johnson attended a party, where he gave a social kiss to his hostess. Within two weeks' time, both were dead of spinal meningitis. In Frank Tenney Johnson's death, the United States lost one of the most accomplished artists ever to love the Old West.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, III
Frank Tenney Johnson received his first exposure to art in Milwaukee, while taking lessons from Richard Lorenz, who influenced him to a large degree in terms of western subjects. Soon he was making occasional trips to the Indian country of South Dakota to sketch the inhabitants. Like many beginning artists of his day Johnson hoped to travel to New York to study at the Art Students League, which he was able to do in 1895. A few years later he enrolled in classes at the New York Art School under Robert Henri and William Merrit Chase, which further shaped his art.

In 1903, Johnson began a profitable association with Emerson Hough, the editor of "Field & Stream" magazine, who sponsored a formative trip west for the artist the following year. At Hough's suggestion he journeyed to Hayden, Colorado and spent a period of time with the cowpunchers and cattle outfits in the vicinity, sketching, taking photographs, and writing lengthy account of his observations. He gained invaluable first-hand experience by participating in the area roundups and riding with numerous old hands who shared many stories with the attentive artist. In 1904, he witnessed a "Frontier Days" celebration in Cheyenne, and at its close traveled down to the Southwest to observe the Navajos and their country.

The desert country of the Southwest entranced Johnson. He was particularly interested in the isolated Indian communities where he stayed to record his impressions. One such place was Manuelita, about twenty miles from Gallup, New Mexico. "There is a find old picturesque trading post here, where the Navajos are constantly coming and going, particularly at night," Johnson wrote in a letter to his wife. "The do a lot of their traveling across the desert at night, to avoid the intense desert heat during the daytime. But seeing these people in the moonlight or even the magic light of just the stars has impressed me very deeply. What paintings I can make of some of the scenes around the trading post." In the years between Johnson's first western trip and the completion of this painting, he had accomplished many things, but he never forgot his initial impressions of the southwestern desert.

ReSources include: The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, Dr. Rick Stewart, Hawthorne Publishing Company, 1986

Biography from The Coeur d'Alene Art Auction
Frank Tenney Johnson, NA (1874-1939) was born in Big Grove, Iowa, and spent his childhood wandering along the Missouri River in the Council Bluffs area. This was country that had been explored by Lewis and Clark 80 years before.Johnson was greatly influenced by artist Richard Lorenz, and became determined at an early age to make art his career.

After learning all he could from the teachers available in his home town, he went to New York and studied under Robert Henri at the Art Students League. As he improved his skills, he longed for the West, where he could paint the subjects he liked best. He settled on a ranch in Colorado and became a successful illustrator for magazines and books by such prominent writers of the period as Zane Grey.

In 1920, one of his artist friends from New York, Clyde Forsythe, left his career as a cartoonist in New York to return to California; shortly after, Johnson and his wife followed. The two friends shared a studio in Alhambra for many years, and there Johnson painted his favorite themes--Indians, cowboys and early settlers. The studio became the gathering place for some of the best known artists of the period--Charles Russell, Ed Borein, Dean Cromwell and Norman Rockwell.

In time, Johnson became known for his paintings of cowboys under the stars, This became known as "The Johnson Moonlight Technique". As the art business flourished, Johnson and Forsythe founded the Biltmore Art Gallery in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. They also became enthusiastic participants in the group organized by Borein and other friends, Rancho Visitadores, which met annually in Santa Barbara.

Johnson's art won him numerous awards and world-wide acclaim and was a source of inspiration for many of the younger artists. At the height of his career spinal meningitis took his life in Pasadena.

Biography from Thomas Nygard Gallery

Frank Tenney Johnson was born on a ranch near Council Bluffs, Iowa on the Missouri River. At the age of fourteen he ran away from home to apprentice himself to the panoramic painter F.W. Heinie in Milwaukee. One year later he studied under the tutelage of the former Texas Ranger Richard Lorenz. He began his art career painting portraits and as a staff member of the Milwaukee newspaper. In 1902 he left for New York City to study at the famed Art Students League with Robert Henri, William Merrit Chase, Kenneth Hayes Miller and F. Louis Mora. During that time he worked as a fashion and newspaper artist.

In 1904, Johnson spent the summer on a ranch in Hayden, Colorado, observing cowboy life and working as a highly successful illustrator of the Zane Grey books of the West. In 1920 he followed his friend Clyde Forsyth to Alhambra, California where they shared a studio together. This studio became a meeting place for many of the leading Western artists of the day including C.M. Russell, Edward Borein, Norman Rockwell and Dean Cornwell. Johnson's "moonlight" technique of painting Western scenes was nationally famous when he died at the height of his career. It is said that he died from spinal meningitis probably contracted from a kiss.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Santa Monica
Frank Tenney Johnson was born near Big Grove, Iowa, in 1874. At an early age, Johnson ran away from home and worked as an apprentice to the Artist, F.W. Heine.

Johnson made his way to New York in 1895, where he studied at the Art Student League. Following a period of time when Johnson worked out west as a cowboy, he returned to New York, where his paintings earned him national acclaim as a painter of Western life.

Having made two earlier trips there, Johnson moved to southern California in the 1920's, and co-founded the Biltmore Art Galleries with his friend Victor Forsyth. Frank Tenney Johnson died in Los Angeles in 1939.

Biography from Caldwell Gallery Hudson
Frank Tenney Johnson apprenticed to F. Heine, a panoramic painter in Milwaukee in 1888. Later he attended classes at the Art Students League with Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase in 1895.

Johnson was a successful illustrator of Zane Gray books. He later became known for his Western night scenes bathed in moonlight and stars.

Johnson moved from NYC to California in the 1920s and set up a studio with Clyde Forsythe. Together they established the Biltmore Gallery in Los Angeles to sell their work.

Biography from Museum of the American West: Autry National Center
The Autry Museum has on permanent display The Pony Express by Frank Tenney Johnson, which was given to the Museum years ago by George Montgomery, the actor.

Information submitted by Peter W. Mettler

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About  Frank Tenney Johnson

Born:  1874 - Big Grove, Iowa
Died:   1939 - Los Angeles, California
Known for:  western genre, landscape, and nocturne painting

Essays referring to
Frank Tenney Johnson

The California Art Club
Western Artists