John Henry

Media - 1995.22.1 - SAAM-1995.22.1_1 - 65784
Copied Frederick Brown, John Henry, 1979, oil on canvas, 8460 18 in. (213.4152.7 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Gerald L. Pearson, 1995.22.1, © 1979, Frederick J. Brown

Artwork Details

John Henry
Not on view
8460 18 in. (213.4152.7 cm.)
upper left center on medallion: IN GOD (written vertically)/WE/TRUST center right: OFFICE/NOT/HIRING/CLOSED center left on arm: JOHN (written vertically) stretcher bar verso left center stamped in black: (212) 932-7100/TOP (arrow pointing right) (vertical line) frame verso upper center on lower inner edge in black ink: A. 152/s top (underlined) COLD LIGHT ROB MATTE BLACK FL...(written upside-down)
© 1979, Frederick J. Brown
Credit Line
Gift of Gerald L. Pearson
Mediums Description
oil on canvas
  • African American
  • Animal — dog
  • Architecture — vehicle — train
  • Landscape — celestial — sun
  • Animal — bird — parrot
  • Portrait male — Henry, John
Object Number

Artwork Description

John Henry tells a story of pathos and protest that lives in the folklore and ballads of America. Countless versions exist, but all of them speak of a slave freed at the end of the Civil War who worked for the C&O Railway and possessed near superhuman strength. Brown, who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood near the steel mills in South Chicago, blends elements of the original John Henry legend with the lives of contemporary steelworkers concerned about layoffs when the American steel industry began outsourcing jobs abroad. Like the narrator in a Greek tragedy, he has linked the story with contemporary experience.

African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, 2012


Media - 1995.22.1 - SAAM-1995.22.1_1 - 65784
African American Art in the 20th Century
January 18, 2019January 18, 2019
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world.