William Henry Johnson (March 18, 1901-1970) was an African American painter born in Florence, South Carolina. At the age of 17, he moved to New York City and became a student at the National Academy of Design in New York.
His style evolved from realism to expressionism to a powerful folk style (for which he is best known).
Three Friends. 1944-1945
Johnson spent the late 1920s in France, absorbing the lessons of modernism. As a result, his work became more expressive and emotional. During this same period, he met and fell in love with Danish artist Holcha Krake, whom he married in 1930. The couple spent most of the '30s in Scandinavia, where Johnson's interest in primitivism and folk art began to have a noticeable impact on his work.
During this period, he traveled to North Africa. Here he studied the "primitive" lifestyles of the Arab locals. This concept of the "primitive" is very important to Johnson. "My aim is to express in a natural way, what I feel both rhythmically and spiritually, all that has been stored up in my family of primitive tradition."
In 1938, he returned to the US and was able to get a job with the WPA. This work provided him with what was to become one of his major projects, a discussion of the history, events, and peoples of the African American community. His art became concerned with the reworking of traditional religious images.
Street Musicians. 1939-1940
His immense range and talent did not protect him from the additional difficulties faced by African-American artists of the era. Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive, In the late 40's, after the dealth of his wife from cancer, Johnson fell ill and returned to New York in 1947 to enter the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island, where he spent the last twenty-three years of his life. He stopped painting in 1956 and died on January 1, 1970.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
After his death, his entire life's work was almost disposed of to save storage fees, but it was rescued by friends at the last moment. The Harmon Foundation gave more than 1,000 paintings, watercolors, and prints by Johnson to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (then the National Museum of American Art) in 1967.
Going to Church. Oil on burlap.
In 1991, the Smithsonian American Art Museum organized and circulated a major exhibition of his artwork, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, and in 2006, they organized and circulated "William H. Johnson's World on Paper."
In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Johnson's honor, recognizing him as one of the nation’s foremost African-American artists and a major figure in 20th-century American art. The stamp, the 11th in the American Treasures series, showcases his painting Flowers (1939-1940), which depicts brightly colored blooms on a small red table.