Children Dance, ca. 1944
William Henry Johnson was born on March 18, 1901, in the small town of Florence, South Carolina, to parents Henry Johnson and Alice Smoot, who were both laborers. At an early age, Johnson wanted to become an artist. However, as the oldest of the family's five children, who lived in a poor, segregated town in the South, Johnson tucked away his aspirations of becoming an artist, deeming them unrealistic.
At the age of 17, Johnson South Carolina to pursue his dreams in New York City. There, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design and met Charles Webster Hawthorne, a well-known artist who took Johnson under his wing. While Hawthorne recognized Johnson's talent, he knew that Johnson would have a difficult time excelling as an African-American artist in the United States, and thus raised enough money to send the young artist to Paris, France, upon his graduation in 1926.
Johnson lived for several years in France, studying and gaining recognition. A return trip to his home town shocked him with a renewed encounter with racism and Johnson returned to Europe, eventually marrying Holcha Krake, a Danish artist. They settled in Denmark and traveled widely in the Middle East and Africa, but due to the threat of war, were forced to return to the US in 1938.
Johnson and his wife settled in Harlem, probably the only place in the US at the time where an interracial couple could live with some degree of freedom and safety.
Johnson took a job as an art teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center. Transitioning from expressionism to a a sophisticated style of "folk art," characterized by simplicity, flat figured and bright colors. Some of these works, including paintings depicting black soldiers fighting on the front lines as well as the segregation that took place there, served as commentaries on the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. Army during World War II.
In 1941, a solo exhibition was held for Johnson at Alma Reed Galleries. The following year, a fire destroyed Johnson's studio, leaving his artwork and supplies reduced to ashes. Two years later, in 1944, Johnson's beloved wife of 14 years, Krake, died of breast cancer.
After her death, Johnson became increasingly unstable. He was eventually hospitalized at Central Islip State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Central Islip, Long Island, New York. He would spend the next 23 years of his life, away from the attention that he'd garnered for his artwork. He died there in 1970.
After his death, his entire body was work was almost disposed of to save storage fees but at the last moment, was rescued by friends. Over a thousand paintings by Johnson are part of the Smithsonian Collection of American Art.
William H. Johnson. [Internet]. 2015. The Biography.com website. Available from: [Accessed 18 Mar 2015].