Li’L Sis

Media - 1967.59.1023 - SAAM-1967.59.1023_1-000001 - 81390
Copied William H. Johnson, Li'L Sis, 1944, oil on paperboard, 2621 14 in. (66.154.0 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1023

Artwork Details

Li’L Sis
Not on view
2621 14 in. (66.154.0 cm.)
lower left in dark brown paint: W.H. Johnson back upper right in black paint: W.H. Johnson upper center stretcher in black marker: 0-198/.59.1023 (partially visible) upper right stretcher in black marker: CAT #28
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on paperboard
  • Portrait
  • African American
  • Portrait female — Brown, Ernestine — child
  • Object — toy — doll
Object Number

Artwork Description

In June of 1944, William H. Johnson returned to his mother's home in Florence, South Carolina, for the first time in fourteen years. Devastated by the recent loss of his wife, Danish artist Holcha Krake, he hoped to reconnect with his family. His niece, depicted in Li'L Sis, is one of several portraits of family and friends Johnson painted during his visit. Seemingly simple, these paintings reject Johnson's earlier academic style. Their two-dimensionality and contrasting colors reflect the artist's evolving faith and emotional state as he sought to capture a way to illustrate the spirituality of African American life.
Luce Center Label

The little girl in this portrait holds a flyswatter, ready to wave away any insects from the baby in her charge. The scumbled yellow background emphasizes the child’s dark skin and focuses our attention on her stalwart pose and grave eyes. William H. Johnson returned to his hometown of Florence, South Carolina, in 1944 to reacquaint himself with his family and to paint scenes from the community he grew up in. The younger children did not know Johnson, however, and his unpredictable behavior and short temper may account for the girl’s uneasy but resolute expression.