Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice

Media - 1967.59.1146 - SAAM-1967.59.1146_2 - 141130

William H. Johnson, Harriet Tubman, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, 28 7⁄8 x 23 3⁄8 in. (73.5 x 59.3 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1146

William H. Johnson (1901 – 1970) painted his Fighters for Freedom series in the mid-1940s as a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers as well as international leaders working to bring peace to the world. He celebrated their accomplishments even as he acknowledged the realities of racism, violence, and oppression they faced and overcame. Johnson reminds us that individual achievement and commitment to social justice are at the heart of the American story.

Description

William H. Johnson (1901–1970) painted his last body of work, the Fighters for Freedom series, in the mid-1940s as a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers and performers as well as international leaders working to bring peace to the world. This landmark exhibition brings together—for the first time since 1946—34 paintings featured in the series.

The exhibition illuminates the extraordinary life and contributions of Johnson, an artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance but whose practice spanned several continents, as well as the contributions of historical figures he depicted. Some of his Fighters—Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, Mohandas Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman—are familiar figures; others—Nannie Helen Burroughs and William Grant Still, among them—are less well-known individuals whose achievements have been eclipsed over time. Johnson celebrates their accomplishments even as he acknowledges the realities of racism, oppression, and sometimes violence they faced and overcame. Johnson clues viewers to significant episodes in the Fighters lives by punctuating each portrait with tiny buildings, flags, and vignettes that give insight into their stories. Using a colorful palette to create evocative scenes and craft important narratives, he suggests that the pursuit of freedom is an ongoing, interconnected struggle, with moments of both triumph and tragedy.

The exhibition is drawn primarily from SAAM's collection of more than 1,000 works by William H. Johnson, the largest and most complete collection of work by the artist, given to the museum by the Harmon Foundation in 1967. The museum, in turn, offered almost 150 paintings and prints to other institutions. As a result, historically Black universities, including Fisk, Hampton, Howard, Morgan State and others, have rich collections of Johnson’s work. SAAM has done much in the past 50 years to preserve Johnson’s art and establish his reputation by organizing exhibitions and installations of his work and an ongoing program of conservation for these fragile paintings. 

Two paintings, Three Great Freedom Fighters and Against the Odds, are on loan from the Hampton University Museum of Art exclusively for the presentation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

The exhibition is organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Laura Augustin Fox, curatorial collections coordinator.

Visiting Information

March 8, 2024 September 10, 2024
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission

Tour Schedule

Gibbes Museum of Art
Charleston, SC
January 21, 2022 August 7, 2022
Albany Museum of Art
Albany, GA
September 1, 2022 December 10, 2022
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Oklahoma City, OK
February 18, 2023 May 14, 2023
The Rockwell Museum
Corning, NY
June 2, 2023 September 4, 2023
Wichita Art Museum
Wichita, KS
October 7, 2023 January 14, 2024
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Washington, DC
March 8, 2024 September 8, 2024
Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum
Miami, FL
September 28, 2024 January 5, 2025
Dayton Art Institute
Dayton, OH
June 27, 2026 September 13, 2026

Events

18
Tuesday
Jun
Free | Registration encouraged 
Featured Event
18
Tuesday
Jun
Virtual Fighters for Freedom Juneteenth Conversation
Tuesday, June 18, 2024, 7 – 8pm EDT
Online
Free | Registration required

Publications

Cover for publication Fighters for Freedom
Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice
William H. Johnson painted his Fighters for Freedom series in the mid-1940s as a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers, as well as international heads of state working to bring peace to the world. Some of his Fighters — Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Mohandas Gandhi — are familiar historical figures; others are less well-known individuals. This catalogue—the first ever devoted to the Fighters for Freedom series—showcases Johnson’s bold, modernist style.

Videos

Credit

Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Art Bridges, Faye and Robert Davidson, William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund, Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Foundation, Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibition Endowment, Sara Roby Foundation, and Share Fund. 

Color logo that says "Art Bridges"

SAAM Stories

A painting of three men shaking hands
Conservation11/02/2020
Explore William H. Johnson’s powerful “Fighters for Freedom” series through the lens of a conservator.
Keara Teeter
Marian Anderson and symbols that surround her life
SAAM educator Phoebe Hillemann reflects on creating resources to spark curiosity for learners of all ages who view William H. Johnson’s Fighters for Freedom series
A photograph of Phoebe Hillemann
Phoebe Hillemann
Teacher Institutes Educator
A detail of a painting showing five women and the institutions they built.
Johnson offers historical insights and fresh perspectives of legendary women alongside less well-known changemakers
SAAM
Marian Anderson and symbols that surround her life
William H. Johnson portrayed the singer in multiple paintings, including in his Fighters for Freedom series.

Learning Resources

Painting of eight women beside the buildings they created.
Activity/Lab
William H. Johnson’s Fighters for Freedom: Decoding the Paintings
Uncover meaning behind the imagery embedded in William H. Johnson's Fighters for Freedom paintings through this Smithsonian Learning Lab collection. Explore Johnson's visual references and historical source material, and discover little-known figures in Black history.
Topics
History and Social Studies
Language
English
A portrait of a woman by William H. Johnson
Activity/Lab
Who Were the Fighters?
Explore the biographies of the figures William H. Johnson portrayed in eight of his Fighters for Freedom paintings, as well as the artist himself. Close-looking questions, primary source connections, and reflection prompts are included in this Sutori resource.
Topics
History and Social Studies
Language
English

Online Gallery

William H. Johnson, Crispus Attucks, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.53
Crispus Attucks
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Toussaint l'Ouverture, Haiti, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1154
Toussaint l’Ouverture, Haiti
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Harriet Tubman, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1146
Harriet Tubman
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Underground Railroad, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.645
Underground Railroad
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.643
Abraham Lincoln
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Booker T. Washington Legend, ca. 1944-1945, oil on plywood, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.664
Booker T. Washington Legend
Dateca. 1944-1945
oil on plywood
On view
William H. Johnson, Booker T. Washington Revelation, ca. 1945, oil on fiberboard (Upson Board), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1143
Booker T. Washington Revelation
Dateca. 1945
oil on fiberboard (Upson Board)
On view
William H. Johnson, Commodore Peary and Henson at the North Pole, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.54
Commodore Peary and Henson at the North Pole
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Marcus Garvey, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.648
Marcus Garvey
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Dr. George Washington Carver, ca. 1945, oil on plywood, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.597
Dr. George Washington Carver
Dateca. 1945
oil on plywood
On view
William H. Johnson, Dr. George Washington Carver, ca. 1945, oil on cardboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1142
Dr. George Washington Carver
Dateca. 1945
oil on cardboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Marian Anderson, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.657
Marian Anderson
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Paul Robeson's Relations, ca. 1945, oil on hardboard (Masonite), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.666
Paul Robeson’s Relations
Dateca. 1945
oil on hardboard (Masonite)
On view
William H. Johnson, Historical Scene with Mary McLeod Bethune, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.651
Historical Scene with Mary McLeod Bethune
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Historical Scene, ca. 1945, oil on hardboard (Masonite), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.646
Historical Scene
Dateca. 1945
oil on hardboard (Masonite)
On view
William H. Johnson, Nehru and Gandhi, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.665
Nehru and Gandhi
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, King Ibn Saud, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.650
King Ibn Saud
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Three Allies in Cairo, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.663
Three Allies in Cairo
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Historical Scene--WW II, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.659
Historical Scene – WW II
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, FDR and U.N., 1945, oil on plywood, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.644
FDR and U.N.
Date1945
oil on plywood
On view
William H. Johnson, Potsdam Meeting, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.655
Potsdam Meeting
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Boxers, 1945-1946, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.652
Boxers
Date1945-1946
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Three Great Dancers, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.667
Three Great Dancers
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Women Builders, 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1150
Women Builders
Date1945
oil on paperboard
On view
William H. Johnson, Haile Selassie, ca. 1945, oil on plywood, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.607R-V
Haile Selassie
Dateca. 1945
oil on plywood
On view
William H. Johnson, Tehran Conference, ca. 1945, oil on plywood, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.647
Tehran Conference
Dateca. 1945
oil on plywood
On view
William H. Johnson, Self-Portrait with Pipe, ca. 1937, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.913
Self-Portrait with Pipe
Dateca. 1937
oil on canvas
On view

Artists

Media - portrait_image_113210.jpg - 90143
William H. Johnson
born Florence, SC 1901-died Central Islip, NY 1970

By almost any standard, William H. Johnson (1901–1970) can be considered a major American artist. He produced hundreds of works in a virtuosic, eclectic career that spanned several decades as well as several continents.