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I Baptize Thee

ca. 1940 William H. Johnson Born: Florence, South Carolina 1901 Died: Central Islip, New York 1970 oil on burlap 38 1/8 x 45 1/2 in. (96.9 x 115.6 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.977 Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 4th Floor, 31A

Luce Center Label

In the background of this painting, Sunday suits and best dresses evoke a Baptist congregation in a rural community. Nearer the viewer, however, the strong profiles, closed eyes, and exaggerated hands and feet recall African art and older rituals of faith. The preacher and congregants stand in a creek or a pond to symbolize crossing the River Jordan into a new life. This symbolism applied as well to the dramatic change in William H. Johnson’s career when he returned to America in 1938. He abandoned his European painting styles and subjects and vowed to paint the authentic spirit of “his own people.”


Ceremony - religion - baptism

Ethnic - African-American

Figure group


paint - oil

fabric - burlap