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ca. 1944 William H. Johnson Born: Florence, South Carolina 1901 Died: Central Islip, New York 1970 oil on fiberboard 29 1/8 x 33 1/4 in. (74.0 x 84.6 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.981 Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 4th Floor, 32A

Luce Center Label

William H. Johnson began painting religious scenes in the 1940s, after he lost his wife, Holcha, to cancer. Here, the light-skinned Christ with a neatly trimmed beard may symbolize the artist, still wounded from the loss of his companion. Three women in brightly printed cotton shifts raise their hands in stylized gestures that evoke African mourning rites, and the ladders, which appear in European scenes of the Crucifixion, also bring to mind African American spirituals like “Jacob’s Ladder.” In Lamentation, Johnson filtered his personal grief through centuries of European art, African traditions, and the public expression of faith in African American churches.


Emblem - cross

Ethnic - African-American

Object - tool - ladder

Recreation - church - prayer

Religion - New Testament - Christ

Religion - New Testament - Crucifixion


paint - oil