Seeing Things (9): Flowers in December

December 20, 2012

This is the ninth in a series of personal observations about how people experience and explore museums. Take a look at Howard's other blog posts on the subject.

After a late afternoon visit to American Art I was packing up to go back into the gray, damp Sunday streets. I had just put away my Moleskin and my pen, and pressed the button for the elevator to take me down, when I saw William Johnson's painting Flowers, and thought, "you're just what I need today." I moved in closer to take a good look: yellow flowers with orange "eyes." Reds. A few white flowers speckled red. There is a blue flower periscoping in the center of things. The fallen petals? Beautiful.

The vase looks like a coffee container, nothing fancy. Somehow it's all balanced on a wooden stool that has a light blue seat. To me, the painting celebrates the extraordinariness of everyday life, like the poetry of a blade of grass muscling its way through the concrete.

William Johnson, born in 1901, is generously represented in the collection of American Art, with more than one thousand pieces of his work. Johnson, the son of poor African Americans in South Carolina, went to New York as a young man, then to Europe, where he fell in love and married the Danish artist Holcha Krake. In the 1930s they lived in Scandinavia, before returning to the US in 1938. Krake died in 1944, and Johnson's mental health began to deteriorate. He spent the last 23 years of his life in a state hospital on Long Island, before his death in 1970.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has come under the spell of this painting. More than forty years after Johnson's death, Flowers was selected by the US Postal Service as one of it's Forever stamps. And forever, seems fitting for this timeless work of art. A recent article on Eye Level talks about the painting's new-found fame.

Learn more about William Johnson in American Art's collection.


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