• William H. Johnson, Café, ca. 1939-1940, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.669

African American Art is a rich part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection, which is the largest and one of the finest in the United States. The museum began acquiring work by African American artists in the 1960s, some in depth — such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, William H. Johnson, and Alma Thomas. Many of the social, political, and cultural movements that came to define the twentieth century in America and captured the imagination of artists — such as the Jazz Age, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement — were rooted in African American communities.

William H. Johnson traveled the world, seeking the authentic spirit of ordinary people from different cultures. In the late 1930s, he found what he was looking for in his own African American community. The strong colors and silhouettes in Café evoke the African art that black artists and writers embraced during the Harlem Renaissance. But this affectionate couple also has the fashionable flash of zoot-suiters in the big band era. Above the table, the two figures coolly take in the café scene; below, a tangle of legs and limbs hints at the erotic energy of a night on the town.

Smithsonian American Art Museum: Commemorative Guide. Nashville, TN: Beckon Books, 2015.

ca. 1939-1940
Not on view
36 1228 38 in. (92.772.2 cm.)
Credit Line

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Mediums Description
oil on paperboard
  • African-American
  • Recreation – cafe
  • Figure group
  • Dress – accessory – hat
  • Recreation – leisure – eating and drinking
  • African American
Object Number
Linked Open Data
Linked Open Data URI

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