Street Life, Harlem

Media - 1967.59.674 - SAAM-1967.59.674_2 - 123039
Copied William H. Johnson, Street Life, Harlem, ca. 1939-1940, oil on plywood, 45 5838 58 in. (116.098.0 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.674

Artwork Details

Street Life, Harlem
ca. 1939-1940
Not on view
45 5838 58 in. (116.098.0 cm)
lower right in oil paint: W.H. Johnson back upper right in felt-tipped pen and ink: #674 NCFA cat.
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on plywood
  • Group
  • Figure group
  • Cityscape — New York — New York
  • Cityscape — street
  • African American
  • Cityscape — celestial — moon
  • Cityscape — New York — Harlem
  • Architecture Exterior — commercial
Object Number

Artwork Description

The New York Amsterdam News reported in 1939 on the crowds gathering at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The reporter described the "cock-eyed hats, perched at crazy angles on . . . shiny hair" and skirts "a tantalizing fraction of an inch below their knees" (Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, 1991). In Street Life, Harlem, William H. Johnson portrayed an elegant couple dressed "to the nines" for an evening on the town. Style, as much as skin color, was a mark of pride among many African Americans who had come of age during the Harlem Renaissance, but the flamboyant appearance of zoot-suiters inflamed racial tensions long after swing music and the jitterbug had been absorbed into American popular culture.

Luce Object Quote
"I am feeling . . . that I would like my own homeland next, as I know of no better country to inspire me . . ." Letter from the artist, 1938, in Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, 1991