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The Breakdown

ca. 1940-1941 William H. Johnson Born: Florence, South Carolina 1901 Died: Central Islip, New York 1970 oil on plywood 33 7/8 x 37 in. (86.0 x 93.9 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.59.589 Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center, 4th Floor, 31A

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The Breakdown

Luce Center Label

The Breakdown shows a scene familiar to Americans after years of drought and economic depression, but the title also refers to the moments of despair that punctuate African American blues music. A rattling jalopy piled with furniture strands a couple in search of a better life. A hood ornament – shaped like a cross and silhouetted against the rays of the sun – suggests the faith that sustains husband and wife through their troubles. But the two are not passively awaiting salvation. She improvises a roadside cookfire while he works to repair their car. Other paintings in this series show families with children, but here, the couple make their way with only one another to rely on. When William H. Johnson painted this canvas, he and his Danish wife had spent years traveling together. In 1938 they fled the crisis growing in Europe and returned to the United States, where Johnson adopted a self-consciously "primitive" style and dedicated himself to recording aspects of African American life.


Architecture - vehicle - automobile

Figure group

Figure(s) in exterior


paint - oil

wood - plywood