William Henry Johnson was an American painter. Born in Florence, South Carolina, he became a student at the National Academy of Design in New York City, working with Charles Webster Hawthorne. He later lived and worked in France, where he was exposed to modernism. After Johnson married Danish textile artist Holcha Krake, the couple lived for some time in Scandinavia. There he was influenced by the strong folk art tradition. The couple moved to the United States in 1938. Johnson eventually found work as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center, through the Federal Art Project.
Johnson’s style evolved from realism to expressionism to a powerful folk style, for which he is best known. A substantial collection of his paintings, watercolors, and prints is held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which has organized and circulated major exhibitions of his works.
William Henry Johnson was born March 18, 1901, in Florence, South Carolina, to Henry Johnson and Alice Smoot. He attended the first public school in Florence, the all-black Wilson School on Athens Street. It is likely that Johnson was introduced to sketching by one of his teachers, Louise Fordham Holmes, who sometimes included art in her curriculum. Johnson practiced drawing by copying the comic strips in the newspapers, and considered a career as a newspaper cartoonist.
He moved from Florence, South Carolina, to New York City at the age of 17. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for classes at the prestigious National Academy of Design. He took a preparatory class with Charles Louis Hinton, then studied with Charles Courtney Curran and George Willoughby Maynard, all of whom emphasized classical portraiture and figure drawing. Beginning in 1923, Johnson worked with the painter Charles Webster Hawthorne, who emphasized the importance of color in painting. John studied with Hawthorne at the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts during the summers, paying for his tuition, food and lodging by working as a general handyman at the school. Johnson received a number of awards at the National Academy of Design, and applied for a coveted Pulitzer Travel Scholarship in his final year. When another student was given the award, Hawthorne raised nearly $1000 to enable Johnson to go abroad to study.
Johnson arrived in Paris, France in the fall of 1927. He spent a year in Paris, and had his first solo exhibition at the Students and Artists Club in November 1927. Next he moved to Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France, influenced by the work of expressionist painter Chaim Soutine. In France, Johnson learned about modernism. During his time as an artist, Johnson worked in a variety of medias: woodcuts, oil, water colors, pen and ink, and serigraphy. He often used whatever materials were available on hand to express his work.
During this time, Johnson met the Danish textile artist Holcha Krake (April 6, 1885 – January 13, 1944). Holcha was traveling with her sister Erna, who was also a painter, and Erna’s husband, the expressionist sculptor Christoph Voll. Johnson was invited to join them on a tour of Corsica. Johnson and Holcha were deeply attracted in spite of differences in race, culture, and age.
Johnson returned to the United States in 1929. Fellow artist George Luks encouraged Johnson to enter his work at the Harmon Foundation to be considered for the William E. Harmon Foundation Award for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes in the Fine Arts Field. As a result, Johnson received the Harmon gold medal in the fine arts. He was applauded as a “real modernist”, “spontaneous, vigorous, firm, direct”. Other winners of the fine art award include Palmer Hayden, May Howard Jackson and Laura Wheeler Waring.
While in the United States, Johnson also visited his family in Florence, where he painted a considerable number of new works. He was apparently almost arrested while painting the Jacobia Hotel, a once-fashionable town landmark which had become a dilapidated house of ill-repute. Whether Johnson’s actions or his choice of subject were at issue is unknown. During this visit, Johnson was able to publicly exhibit his paintings twice. The first occasion was at a meeting of the Florence County Teachers Institute on February 22, 1930. The second was at a local YMCA where Johnson’s mother worked. Her boss, Bill Covington, arranged for Johnson to exhibit 135 of his paintings for a single afternoon, on April 15, 1930. Although the Florence Morning News described Johnson condescendingly as a “humble … Negro youth”, it also stated that he had “real genius”.
Johnson returned to Europe in 1930 by working his way to France on a freighter. He went to Funen, a Danish island, to rejoin Holcha Krake. The couple signed a prenuptial agreement on May 28, 1930, and were married a few days later in the town of Kerteminde. Johnson and his wife spent most of the 1930s in Scandinavia, where his interest in folk art influenced his painting. Johnson focused on artwork that expressed the skilled techniques learned from his many teachers throughout the years. After Holcha was introduced into his life his art work began to transform due to “Holcha’s folk art philosophies”. However, as Nazi sentiments increased in Germany and Europe in the late 1930s, many artists were affected. Johnson’s brother-in-law Christoph Voll was fired from his teaching position, and his art was labelled “degenerate”. Johnson and Krake chose to move to the United States in 1938. After Johnson returned to the united states in 1938,” over the course of the next decade, his art transformed into the intense, “primitivist” style he is recognized for today. Both vibrant and somber, these abstracted paintings depict the African-American experience from both a historical and personal perspective”. Throughout the 1940’s this newly founded style became a catalyst for Johnson’s work, as well as many of their attributes in their relationship. Street Musicians (1939–1940), by William H. Johnson.Sowing (1940), by William H. JohnsonThree Friends (ca. 1944), by William H. Johnson
Johnson joined the WPA federal art project and with the help of Mary Beattie Brady, Johnson eventually found work as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center. There he and other teachers instructed about 600 students per week, as part of a local Federal Art Project supported by the Works Progress Administration. Through the center Johnson met important Harlem inhabitants such as Henry Bannarn and Gwendolyn Knight. He immersed himself in African-American culture and traditions, producing paintings that were characterized by their folk art simplicity. Johnson was determined to “paint his own people”. He celebrated African American culture and imagery in the urban settings of pieces such as Street life – Harlem, Cafe, and Street Musicians, and in the rural settings of Farm Couple at Work, Sowing, and Going to Market. Harsher realities of Negro life were depicted in Chain Gang and Moon over Harlem, which was a response to the 1943 racial riots in New York. Another series of works showed war-time soldiers and nurses. His pieces emphasized striking and vibrant colors and simplistic figures, and his depictions of African American culture began to draw on his upbringing in the rural South. Additionally, he employed religious and political motifs throughout his work. He aimed to illustrate the richness of the African culture and the modernism of the Harlem Renaissance. The style as well as texture of the pieces demonstrated Johnson’s message. In his Jitterbugs paintings, Johnson began experimenting with the relatively unused technique of screen printing, allowing for a quickness and suppleness of the painting. This layering of paint created an intentional appearance of grittiness and roughness to the image. Johnson used this technique to appeal to an aesthetic of durability and perseverance in his subjects. Johnson held a solo exhibition at Alma Reed Galleries in 1941. However, although he enjoyed a degree of success as an artist during the 1940s and 1950s, he was never able to achieve financial stability.
On a personal level, the 1940s were difficult. Bad news came from Europe. Christoph Voll died in Karlsruhe, Germany, on June 16, 1939, after interrogation by Nazi officials. Holcha’s family endured the German occupation of Denmark at their home in Odense. In December 1942, Johnson and Krake moved to a larger studio apartment in Greenwich Village. A week later, Johnson’s artwork, supplies, and personal possessions were destroyed when the building caught fire. On January 13, 1944, John suffered further loss when his wife Holcha died from breast cancer. To deal with his grief, he revisited his family in Florence, and painted works with religious themes, such as Mount Calvary. Mount Calvary and Booker T. Washington Legend (from Johnson’s Fighters for Freedom series of 1945) were included in the show The Negro Artist Comes of Age: A National Survey of Contemporary American Artists at the Albany Institute of History and Art in 1945.
In 1946 Johnson left for Denmark to be with his wife’s family. However, his behavior became increasingly erratic. “Johnson’s grief over his wife’s tragic death in 1944, compounded by his own untreated medical issues, precipitated a mental breakdown and subsequent institutionalization.” At Ullevål Hospital in Oslo in spring 1947, he was diagnosed as suffering from syphilis which had impaired both mental and motor function. As a U.S. citizen who was no longer considered mentally competent, he was sent back to New York by the U.S. Embassy in Oslo. An attorney was appointed by the court as his legal guardian, and his belongings were put into storage. He entered the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island on December 1, 1947, where he was treated for syphilis-induced paresis. He spent the last twenty-three years of his life there. He no longer painted after 1955 and died on April 13, 1970, of hemorrhaging of the pancreas. “His life’s work was acquired in 1967 by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts (now Smithsonian American Art Museum), which organized his first museum retrospective in 1971, shortly after his death.”