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John Henry

1979 Frederick Brown Born: Greensboro, Georgia 1945 Died: Scottsdale, Arizona 2012 oil on canvas 84 x 60 1/8 in. (213.4 x 152.7 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Gerald L. Pearson © 1979, Frederick J. Brown 1995.22.1 Not currently on view

Exhibition Label

John Henry tells a story of pathos and protest that lives in the folklore and ballads of America. Countless versions exist, but all of them speak of a slave freed at the end of the Civil War who worked for the C&O Railway and possessed near superhuman strength. Brown, who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood near the steel mills in South Chicago, blends elements of the original John Henry legend with the lives of contemporary steelworkers concerned about layoffs when the American steel industry began outsourcing jobs abroad. Like the narrator in a Greek tragedy, he has linked the story with contemporary experience.

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, 2012


Animal - bird - parrot

Animal - dog

Architecture - vehicle - train

Ethnic - African-American

Landscape - celestial - sun

Portrait male - Henry, John


paint - oil

fabric - canvas