The Breakdown

Media - 1967.59.589 - SAAM-1967.59.589_1-000001 - 81307
Copied William H. Johnson, The Breakdown, ca. 1940-1941, oil on plywood, 33 7837 in. (86.093.9 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.589

Artwork Details

The Breakdown
ca. 1940-1941
33 7837 in. (86.093.9 cm.)
lower left in oil: W.H. Johnson back upper center in grease crayon: W. H. JOHNSON back upper right in grease crayon: BREAK DOWN/WILLIAM H John(son) back upper right in felt-tipped pen and ink: #589 NCFA cat.
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on plywood
  • Figure group
  • Figure(s) in exterior
  • Architecture — vehicle — automobile
Object Number

Artwork Description

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.