William H. Johnson: A Retrospective from the National Museum of American Art


Self-Portrait, 1929


Related Information: Exhibition Checklist

EXHIBITION: This exhibition is a testament to one of America's most important but neglected painters. Its images range from landscapes of Scandinavia and cityscapes in France, to Southern cotton patches and Harlem streets of post-Depression America.

Born in South Carolina in 1901 to a poor African-American family, William Henry Johnson moved to New York at age seventeen. He saved money for art lessons at the National Academy of Design where he mastered its rigorous standards and won numerous awards and the respect of fellow students and teachers.

Johnson spent the late 1920s in France studying the techniques of modernism. There he met and later married the Danish artist Holcha Krake. During the 1930s they lived in Scandinavia where Johnson's interest in folk expression in art began to influence his work. After the couple moved to the United States in 1938, Johnson began depicting his rural South Carolina family and their community in brightly colored paintings with simplified form and stark detail. Johnson and Holcha settled in New York where African-American culture remained charged with the energy sparked by the 1920s flowering of artistic expression known as the "Harlem Renaissance." Johnson expressed the vitality of the Harlem community and its blues and jazz culture in many of his paintings.

After his wife died in 1944, Johnson's mental health declined dramatically. He spent the last twenty-three years of his life in a state hospital on Long Island. When Johnson died in 1970, he had fallen into artistic obscurity. Over a thousand paintings and drawings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the National Museum of American Art. This exhibition includes a retrospective survey of fifty-four paintings representing all periods of the artist's career.

PUBLICATIONS: Homecoming: William H. Johnson and Afro-America by Richard J. Powell and Li'l Sis and Uncle Willie by Gwen Everett.

EDUCATIONAL MATERIAL: A 25-minute VHS cassette and teacher's guide is available directly through Reading & O'Reilly Inc. A postcard book and 1997 calendar may be purchased for resale in the exhibitor's shop.

PARTICIPATION FEE: The participation fee is $21,000. The fee covers expenses for packing, shipping and insuring the exhibition. The fee also includes three working copies of the Homecoming book.

CONTACT: To reserve dates please contact Melissa Kroning, Registrar (202)357-1381. For questions regarding the content of the exhibition, please contact Andrew Connors, Curatorial Associate (202)357-2497.

For further general information or information about this exhibit, please write or telephone:

Traveling Exhibitions
National Museum of American Art
Smithsonian Institution, MRC 210
Washington, D.C. 20560
Telephone (202) 357-1381
Fax: (202) 786-2607
E-mail: NMAA.Patti@ic.si.edu