Living and working abroad for many years, the African American painter William H. Johnson (1901-1970) is best known for his style of colorful, neo-folk depictions of the black experience.
William Henry Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901. As a young boy Johnson drew frequently, mainly copying comic strips, between odd jobs. At 17 Johnson left South Carolina to pursue a career as a newspaper cartoonist in New York. By 1921 he was admitted to New York's School of National Academy of Design. At the academy Professor Charles W. Hawthorne guided the talented Johnson and provided him with employment to fund his studies. Johnson also worked in George Luks' studio in exchange for painting lessons.
Recognized as having tremendous potential, Johnson was encouraged to study abroad. Like African American artist Henry O. Tanner, Johnson sought professional recognition and racial acceptance overseas. In 1926 Johnson sailed for Paris. In Paris his art was influenced by such popular modern movements as Post-Impressionism and Expressionism. Specifically, his works drew from the styles of Paul Cezanne (French, 1839-1906) and Chaim Soutine (Lithuanian, 1894-1943). Aspects of a tumultuous, Expressionist style were evident in Johnson's landscapes such as Cagnes sur Mer (1928-1929).
After nearly two years in France, the young artist visited New York where he again met George Luks. Impressed with Johnson's artistic progress, Luks nominated him for the prestigious Harmon Award, and with his support Johnson's work received recognition in the city's art community. While in America, Johnson also returned to his childhood home where his style took an important turn. Using friends and family as subjects, Johnson started to document the daily activities of Florence, South Carolina. A painting from this period, Girl in Green Dress (1930), demonstrated Johnson's direct style and ability to capture expression.
Painting in Europe and New York
Confident from his American trip, Johnson returned to France with the promise of a successful career. Johnson also looked forward to a reunion with Danish textile artist Holcha Krake, with whom he had begun a relationship. Soon after his arrival in Europe, they married. The couple resided in the resort town of Kerteminde, Denmark, where Johnson painted many landscapes. Many of these works recalled paintings of his wife's friend Oskar Kokoschka (Austrian, 1886-1980). Kokoschka's sinuous lines and thick pigment were prominent elements of Johnson's work Tiled Rooftops, Denmark (1931).
The Johnsons continued to create art and travel extensively. After a trip to Tunisia, the Johnsons moved to Norway in 1935. Once again Johnson's style changed as he abandoned Kokoschka's distortions and remembered his South Carolina trip where young subjects became a theme. Johnson returned to child models as he approached his mature style in works such as Girl in a Red Dress (1936). In 1937 Johnson completed one of the finest works of his oeuvre, Self Portrait with Pipe. This regal self-portrait in a smoking jacket commanded recognition for Johnson based on its dynamic brushstrokes, striking color, and captivating expression.
By the end of the 1930s Johnson, like many in Europe, found the events in Germany as well as rumors of a Nazi invasion of Denmark gravely unsettling. The threat of world war was the catalyst for the Johnsons' move to the United States in 1938. William H. Johnson arrived in New York and quickly became active in the city's art scene. New York, a refuge for many European artists during the war, became the art center of the world. Johnson's return to the United States presented him with opportunities to once more "paint his own people."
With a new teaching job at the Harlem Community Art Center through the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, Johnson produced paintings of African Americans from his studies of European art and African sculpture. His knowledge of European modernism and primitive forms was instrumental in establishing Johnson's style. By 1940 his paintings concentrated solely on African-American subjects and were executed in a direct manner referring to American folk art.
Johnson's depictions of African-American urban life, such as Cafe (1939-1940) and Street Musicians (1940), were well received by New York's diverse population. Johnson was also known for his portraits of celebrities including singer Marian Anderson, boxer Joe Louis, and scenes from the Savoy Ballroom.
A trip to South Carolina resulted in the production of Johnson's signature folk art works including Farm Couple at Work (1940), Sowing (1940), and Going to Church (1940-1941), as he then applied his command of color and direct style to Black subjects of the rural south. These paintings showed the culmination of his training and talent. Boasting a bright palette and abstract features, Johnson's mature compositions were attributed to his exposure to modern French painters and study of African tribal sculpture.
As World War II raged on, Johnson abandoned the carefree New York subjects and moral southern life in favor of combat scenes. He participated in the national art competition to promote war awareness with works such as Station Stop, Red Cross Ambulance (1942) and Killed in Action (1942).
Johnson's compassion was evident through his World War II paintings, but he also painted suffering in his "Breakdown" series. In this series Johnson's subjects cope with life's difficulties and setbacks. The Honeymooners (1940-1941) and Breakdown with Flat Tire (1940-1941) are works with subjects based on automotive problems and their symbolic reference to overcoming life's hardships.
Following the "Breakdown" series, Johnson concentrated on upbeat themes of America's swing culture. The Jitterbug dance craze was of special interest to American artists as evidenced by Johnson's abstract compositions such as Jitterbugs that captured the free-spirited energy of America's cities in the 1940s.
During this productive period, tragedy struck. Fire raged through the Johnsons' Greenwich Village apartment, but this was only one of the difficulties which Johnson faced in 1943. In that same year the Harlem riots ignited racial tensions and changed Johnson's paintings of the city. The socially conscious work Moon over Harlem (1943-1944) chronicled the aftermath of an urban dispute and the mistreatment and prejudice directed toward African Americans.
The uprising paralleled Johnson's personal struggle as his beloved wife battled cancer. As a result Johnson's paintings dealt with religious subjects. Maintaining his African-American heritage, Johnson created a series of religious works tied to the Black folk art tradition, including Mount Calvary (1944) and Climbing Jacob's Ladder (1944).
Home to South Carolina
Following Holcha's death Johnson went home to South Carolina. He quietly immortalized family members in Mom Alice (1944), L'il Sis (1944), and Little Girl in Green (1944). After completing a great body of portraits, Johnson returned to New York and concentrated on subjects documenting African American historical events. He promoted African American history through portraits of important figures in the struggle for equality, including Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln.
While Johnson painted the rise of African Americans, his own life began to deteriorate. After a final trip to Denmark, he settled in New York where his wife's death, racism, and economic hardship took their toll. These events resulted in a mental breakdown, and from the late 1940s until his death in 1970 Johnson was institutionalized. He stopped painting completely after 1949.
Although his later years were riddled with mental instability, William H. Johnson's contribution to American art remains monumental. He was responsible for the introduction of various aspects of European modernism into American art. He played an integral role in creating opportunities and acceptance for other African American artists. Through his paintings he documented his heritage while simultaneously depicting urban and rural America at mid-century. From the southern homestead to the Savoy Ballroom, William H. Johnson's unique brand of neo-folk art drew from European modernism and traditional African forms to spark a new movement in modern American painting.
Further Reading on William H. Johnson
The most thorough and inclusive works on the career of William H. Johnson are exhibition catalogues: Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (1991) and William H. Johnson: 1901-1970 (1971) by Adelyn Breeskin. For examinations of African American art within its cultural context, see Mary Schmidt Campbell, Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America (1987); and Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1983).