I Baptize Thee

Media - 1967.59.977 - SAAM-1967.59.977_1 - 81383
Copied William H. Johnson, I Baptize Thee, ca. 1940, oil on burlap, 38 1845 12 in. (96.9115.6 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.977

Artwork Details

I Baptize Thee
ca. 1940
38 1845 12 in. (96.9115.6 cm)
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on burlap
  • Figure group
  • African American
  • Ceremony — religion — baptism
Object Number

Artwork Description

In the background of this painting, Sunday suits and best dresses evoke a Baptist congregation in a rural community. Nearer the viewer, however, the strong profiles, closed eyes, and exaggerated hands and feet recall African art and older rituals of faith. The preacher and congregants stand in a creek or a pond to symbolize crossing the River Jordan into a new life. This symbolism applied as well to the dramatic change in William H. Johnson’s career when he returned to America in 1938. He abandoned his European painting styles and subjects and vowed to paint the authentic spirit of “his own people.”