WILLIAM H. JOHNSON: MODERNIST ARTIST
William Henry Johnson is a quintessential American painter whose work was almost lost to obscurity. His paintings traversed movements. He was a part of the Harlem Renaissance and he has been described as an Expressionist, an Impressionist, a Cubist and as a folk artist. Despite being one of the elite black artists of the 30s and 40s, and having produced more than a thousand paintings over the course of his career, his artwork was almost disposed of in its entirety when the funds ran out to store the pieces after Johnson was committed to a state hospital in New York.
Born in 1901 to Henry Johnson and Alice Smoot in the segregated and poor town of Florence, South Carolina, William had an early inclination towards art. As a child, he was known to practice drawing by copying the doodles out of the local newspaper. He was the oldest of five children though and had to work to help his parents with his younger siblings Lacy, Lucy, James, and Lillian, so he tried to put ideas of becoming an artist out of his mind. Eventually, though, he decided he had to pursue his dream of becoming a newspaper cartoonist and he left to New York at 17.
Working as a cook, a bellhop, and a ship-docker, William saved enough money to enroll at the prestigious National Academy of Design in 1921. One of his teachers at the academy, Charles Webster Hawthorne, encouraged Johnson to shift his focus from illustration to painting and Johnson excelled in the coursework and came to be recognized by both instructors and other students as a talented artist. From 1923 to 1926, he spent the school year studying at the Academy and his summers studying at the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, saving money for tuition by helping out around the school. Johnson won several awards during his time at the Academy and at the end of his studies there, he applied for a prestigious travel scholarship. The award went to another student, but his mentor Charles Hawthorne raised the money for Johnson to be able to go abroad to study.
Johnson spent the first year of his study abroad in Paris experimenting with cityscapes and then moved around painting and exhibiting his works in France. While there, he made the acquaintance of the woman he would later marry, a Danish textile artist by the name of Holcha Krake. Johnson began to take on modernist philosophical influences, something that would reemerge more strongly in the ‘40s, with his paintings depicting the treatment of African Americans in the Army during World War II. During this period in Europe, he also traveled to Italy, Belgium and Denmark. When he returned to the United States and exhibited some of these paintings at a Harmon Foundation show in 1930, he won a gold medal for his work.
He returned to Denmark shortly after to marry Krake and they spent time traveling around Tunisia, Norway, and Sweden, both in rural and urban areas, being inspired by churches, mosques, and bazaars. The two experimented with oils, watercolors, gouaches, pen-and-ink sketches, block prints, silk screens, and ceramics. The growing threat of Nazism in Europe caused the couple to move to New York in 1938. Johnson had paid an earlier brief visit to his hometown of Florence but had left frustrated with the racism he still encountered there. He and Holcha decided to settle in the much more open-minded Harlem. Johnson took up teaching art there while continuing to develop his own work, now focusing on life in Harlem and the rural South, as well as religious imagery. He became an established fixture of New York City’s art world.
Tragically, a fire destroyed Johnson’s studio in 1942 and in 1944 his wife passed away due to breast cancer. The combination of the grief from these events as well as his own untreated medical issues led to a decrease in his mental and physical stability. He still continued to create artwork and he traveled from Harlem to Florence to Denmark looking for a feeling of comfort. He eventually had a mental health breakdown due to untreated syphilis in Norway where he was treated temporarily before the Oslo Embassy returned him to the United States.
William H. Johnson spent his last 23 years of life institutionalized in a state hospital. Johnson stopped painting in 1955 and his work was almost disposed of in 1956 when a caretaker declared him no longer able to pay the storage fees. Johnson had never found a great deal of financial security despite gaining incredible international prominence and critical success, but the Harmon Foundation luckily stepped in and acquired Johnson’s work, distributing it to major museums after his death. William H. Johnson’s prolific contribution to the American canon can be viewed at the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, along with several other museums.