DCSIMG
William H. Johnson / American Art
Larger Type
Smaller Type

Search Collections

William H. Johnson Portrait

William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait William H. Johnson Portrait

William H. Johnson

Also Known as: William Henry Johnson

Born:
Florence, South Carolina 1901

Died:
Central Islip, New York 1970

Active in:

  • New York, New York
  • Kerteminde, Denmark
  • Volda, Norway

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait, ca. 1923 1926, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.679.

Photo Caption:
Courtesy Dr. Rick Powell.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait, ca. 1930 1935, hand colored woodcut on paper mounted on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.797.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait, ca. 1930 1935, hand colored woodcut on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.791.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait with Bandana, ca. 1935 1938, oil on burlap, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.936.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait, 1929, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.762.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait, ca. 1930 1935, hand colored woodcut on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1967.59.795.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait with Pipe, ca. 1937, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.913.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Willie and Holcha, ca. 1935, hand colored woodcut on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.793.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait, ca. 1933, woodcut on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.796.

Photo Caption:
William H. Johnson, Self Portrait, ca. 1930 1935, woodcut on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of Mrs. Douglas E. Younger 1971.140.

Luce Artist Quote

“I myself feel like a primitive man, like one who is at the same time both a primitive and a cultured painter.” Johnson, 1935, quoted in Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, 1991


Biography

By almost any standard, William H. Johnson (1901–1970) can be considered a major American artist. He produced hundreds of works in a virtuosic, eclectic career that spanned several decades as well as several continents. It was not until very recently, however, that his work began to receive the attention it deserves.

Born in South Carolina to a poor African-American family, Johnson moved to New York at age seventeen. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for an art education at the prestigious National Academy of Design. His mastery of the academy's rigorous standards gained him both numerous awards and the respect of his teachers and fellow students.

Johnson spent the late 1920s in France, absorbing the lessons of modernism. As a result, his work became more expressive and emotional. During this same period, he met and fell in love with Danish artist Holcha Krake, whom he married in 1930. The couple spent most of the '30s in Scandinavia, where Johnson's interest in primitivism and folk art began to have a noticeable impact on his work.

Returning with Holcha to the U.S. in 1938, Johnson immersed himself in the traditions of Afro-America, producing work characterized by its stunning, eloquent, folk art simplicity. A Greenwich Village resident, he became a familiar, if somewhat aloof, figure on the New York art scene. He was also a well-established part of the African-American artistic community at a time when most black artists were still riding the crest of the Harlem Renaissance.

Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. Following his wife's death in 1944, Johnson's physical and mental health declined dramatically. In a tragic and drawn-out conclusion to a life of immense creativity, Johnson spent his last twenty-three years in a state hospital on Long Island. By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. 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. Over a thousand paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's Smithsonian American Art Museum.

National Museum of American Art. Homecoming: The Paintings of William H. Johnson, A Book of Postcards (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in association with Pomegranate Artbooks, 1991)

Additional Biographies

Luce Artist Biography

William H. Johnson’s painting style changed dramatically as he traveled between Europe and America. He spent his early years in South Carolina and New York, then moved to France, where he met Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist. The couple married in Denmark and settled in a small fishing town, from which they made painting trips to Norway, Sweden, and Africa. By the late 1930s, the threat of war and Johnson’s need to “paint his own people” had convinced him to return to New York, where he created powerful scenes of African American life. Less than a decade later he had lost his wife to cancer and his mental health had begun to decline. He returned to Denmark with ambitious plans to show his work throughout Europe, but his eccentric behavior led friends to disown him, and he wandered the streets with his paintings tied up in a burlap sack. He was eventually diagnosed with “syphilis-induced paresis” and sent back to America to spend the last twenty-three years of his life in a mental hospital. (Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, 1991)