Monday, March 20, 2017
William Henry Johnson
March 18, 1901. William Henry Johnson (March 18, 1901-1970) was an African American painter born in Florence, South Carolina, and is becoming more widely recognized as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century. He became a student at the National Academy of Design in New York. This his image provided by the Smithsonian's American Art Museum shows the painting Children Dance, ca. 1944, by William H. Johnson. The work is on loan from the museum to the White House of President Barack Obama, where it is currently on display. Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Born in South Carolina, he was able to get to New York to study art, which would have been imposible for him as a black man in the South. He was able to move to Europe where he met and married Danish textile artist Holcha Krake. When WW II began to rumble on the horizon, the couple moved back to the United States where Johnson found work as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center. After his wife's death in 1944, Johnson's behavior became erratic and he was found to be suffering from syphillis. In 1947, he was committed to the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island where he spent the last 23 years of his life, dying in 1970.
So many questions about his health remain unanswered. Why was his syphillis untreated until it became life threatening? Where did he contact it and how? Because of his illness a caretaker declared him unfit and unable to pay storage fees. We have his later works because Helen Harriton, Mary Beattie Brady and others arranged to pay the fees.
Johnson's belongings were delivered to the Harmon Foundation with unconditional rights over all works. The foundation would use the works to advance interracial understanding and support African American achievements in the fine arts. On April 19, 1967, the Harmon Foundation gave more than 1,000 paintings, watercolors, and prints by Johnson to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Johnson_(artist)).
What’s stunning is the few short years, from 1939 (When Johnson returned to the US) to 1945, in which he was able to produce work in this mature style–colorful, geometric, using the rhythm of repeating shapes. It’s deceptively childlike. And wow, is it beautiful! The work from that period is mostly narrative. It’s lively even when the subject matter is dark, as when he depicts a young soldier leaving his family farm for World War II, or when he depicts injured soldiers.