Black History Moment: Black American Artist, Mr. William Johnson

By Jueseppi B.





One of William Johnson’s many self portraits.



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 Nation Academy of Design in New York. As his style evolved from realism to expressionism to a powerful folk style (for which he is best known), his work always evokes transitory and sublime sensations, that have been often mimicked but never matched. Without question, he has widened the perimeter of how the Negro historical experience will be remembered and how it will be defined in the future.




In 1944 his wife, Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist whom he met in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, died from breast cancer. To deal with his grief, he took work in a Navy Yard, and in 1946 left for Denmark to be with his wife’s family. Johnson soon fell ill himself, from the effects of advanced syphilis, and returned to New York in 1947 to enter the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island, where he spent the remainder of his life. He stopped painting in 1956 and died on January 1, 1970.


Before his death he donated all of his work to the National Museum of American Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In 2006, the Smithsonian American Art Museum organized and circulated a major exhibition of his works, William H. Johnson’s World on Paper. The exhibition traveled to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in 2007.




Street Musicians (1939-1940), by William H. Johnson.





Self-portrait, ca. 1930-1935




Known for distinctive modernist images of African American life, William Johnson died destitute and deranged from syphilis, having spent the last twenty-three years of his life in the Central Islip Sate Hospital on Long Island.  He stopped painting in 1956.


One of his chief sponsors and exhibitors for his art was the New York Harmon Foundation, which, in 1929, presented him the “Award for Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in the Fine Arts Field.” Most of his work was h (showing 500 of 6965 characters).










In 1947, he was committed to an institution as a result of a mental breakdown. Three years before his death, he donated all of his work to the National Museum of American Art. His collection consists of hundreds of watercolors, oil, and drawings done with Constructivist and African tribal influence.


Some said he died of a broken heart.


h1 William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Soap Box Car Racing 1939-40







Johnson was not a self-taught or outsider artist. At age 17, Johnson moved to New York City, where he supported himself by working as a cook, hotel porter, and stevedore. In September 1921, he enrolled at the School of the National Academy of Design (NAD). Between 1923-1926, during the academic year he studied with Charles W. Hawthorne at the NAD and during the summers at The Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts.



f William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Lil' Sis

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Lil’ Sis



In 1926, Johnson sailed to Paris to study art. He worked as a custodian to make ends meet. Over the next few years, he held exhibits in France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. In 1930, Johnson married Danish textile artist Holcha Krake. Johnson and his wife worked in countries throughout Europe; and in 1932, the couple arrived in Tunisia, where Johnson hoped to learn more about his African heritage. After a 3 month stay, they returned to Denmark via France.



f William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Mom and Dad 1944

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Mom and Dad 1944




During the next couple of years the Johnsons visited Norway and Sweden, where they continued to exhibit their art. 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.



fa1 William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Farm Couple at Well 1939-40 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Farm Couple at Well 1939-40 Print




Johnson’s bold, rough woodcuts from the 1930s, inspired by German expressionist woodcutting techniques, distinguish his prints from the work of most other American artists, who used more traditional methods of printmaking. The materials he used for making relief prints were readily available: scrap lumber or a piece of linoleum.



fa2 William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Deep  South 1940-41 Print

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Deep South 1940-41 Print



After he and his wife returned to the United States in 1938, Johnson continued to produce relief prints. He also began to experiment with serigraphy. While many American artists of his generation created multiple impressions of a single image, Johnson often varied the image from one impression to the next. His prints, like his paintings, reveal the development of his distinctive artistic language to express powerful narrative, emotional, and symbolic content.


Back in the US, Johnson immersed himself in the traditions of the African-American community, producing work characterized by its stunning, eloquent, folk art simplicity. Like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, Johnson began probing the black experience, drawing imagery from his rural southern childhood and from Harlem’s upbeat urban ambiance  A Greenwich Village resident, he became a familiar figure on the New York art scene.


Although Johnson enjoyed a certain degree of success as an artist in this country and abroad, financial security remained elusive. William H. Johnson taught painting for a short period of time at the Harlem Community Art Center. The Metropolitan Museum of Art included his work of black soldiers in its 1942 exhibit Artists for Victory.


By the time of his death in 1970, he had slipped into obscurity. 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. Over 1000 paintings by Johnson are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.



fa10 William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Chain Gang 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Chain Gang 1939




h3 William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Cafe 1939

William H. Johnson (American artist, 1901-1970) Cafe 1939



To see more of this amazing artist’s work, visit:

American Artist William H Johnson 1901-1970 – From the Deep South to New York to Europe & Back














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