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Chain Gang

ca. 1939 William H. Johnson Born: Florence, South Carolina 1901 Died: Central Islip, New York 1970 oil on plywood 45 3/4 x 38 1/2 in. (116.2 x 97.7 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.675 Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 4th Floor, 31A

Luce Center Label

In this painting, enormous hands hold scythes, pickaxes, and shovels, symbolizing the brutal work of the chain gang. Johnson may have seen men like this when he was a child in South Carolina, but he might also have chosen this subject while working for the Works Progress Administration, where archivists worked to preserve the stories and songs of the gangs.


Ethnic - African-American

Figure group

Landscape - road

Occupation - crime

State of being - evil - imprisonment


paint - oil

wood - plywood