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Luce Foundation Center for American Art

Painting: 20th century: Mountain Blossoms, Volda
William H. Johnson

William H. Johnson

(born Florence, SC 1901 -- died Central Islip, NY 1970)

William H. Johnson: As Seen by Himself and Others 2.8MB

“I myself feel like a primitive man, like one who is at the same time both a primitive and a cultured painter.” Johnson, 1935, quoted in Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, 1991

William H. Johnson’s painting style changed dramatically as he traveled between Europe and America. He spent his early years in South Carolina and New York, then moved to France, where he met Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist. The couple married in Denmark and settled in a small fishing town, from which they made painting trips to Norway, Sweden, and Africa. By the late 1930s, the threat of war and Johnson’s need to “paint his own people” had convinced him to return to New York, where he created powerful scenes of African American life. Less than a decade later he had lost his wife to cancer and his mental health had begun to decline. He returned to Denmark with ambitious plans to show his work throughout Europe, but his eccentric behavior led friends to disown him, and he wandered the streets with his paintings tied up in a burlap sack. He was eventually diagnosed with “syphilis-induced paresis” and sent back to America to spend the last twenty-three years of his life in a mental hospital. (Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, 1991)

Image Credits: Courtesy Dr. Rick Powell.