Skip to content
Back to top Back to Artists«

William H. Johnson (1901-1970)


New & Noteworthy

Prints & Publications

Artist Information

William H. Johnson (1901-1970), Blind Singer (deta...

William H. Johnson (1901-1970), Blind Singer (detail), c.1940, pochoir on paper, 17 1/2" x 11 1/2"

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is proud to have placed this work in the permanent collection of The Whitney Museum of American Art. Johnson's Blind Singer was one of a select 58 works chosen for the Art Everwhere US campaign, as voted for by the American public.

The Art Everywhere US campaign is a public celebration of great American art exhibited on thousands of out of home (OOH) advertising displays across America. OOH advertising displays include billboards, bus shelters, subway posters, and much more.

Throughout the entire month of August, cherished American artworks will be seen by millions of people every day when they are commuting to work, taking the kids to school, hailing a taxi, shopping in a mall, catching a bus or pursuing other routine activities.

The movement for art to be seen everywhere is inspired by Art Everywhere founder, Richard Reed, who first produced Art Everywhere UK.

Five of America’s leading art museums have selected works of art that represent American history and culture. The American public has voted for their favorite artworks. The final selection of works are to be featured in the Art Everywhere US campaign, on display from August 4-31, 2014.

“My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel . . . is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually, all that which in time has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition and which is now concentrated in me.”[1]

Born in Florence, South Carolina in 1901, William Henry Johnson demonstrated an aptitude for art from an early age, but given his parents’ restricted income, Johnson, the oldest of five children, spent much of his childhood working to help the family survive. In 1918, “realizing that his opportunities for professional and artistic development were severely limited in a small, segregated southern town, Johnson boarded a train for New York City.”[2] Staying with an uncle in Harlem, Johnson worked various jobs until 1921, when he was accepted into the National Academy of Design (NAD). From 1921 to 1925, he studied with Charles Hawthorne at the NAD, and he took private lessons with painter George Luks. Hawthorne, who had founded the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown and taught summer classes there, had a profound impact on Johnson’s development as an artist. From 1924 to 1926, Johnson spent summers in Provincetown, studying with Hawthorne and working at the school to pay for his tuition. Hawthorne encouraged and supported Johnson, and in 1926, when Johnson was denied the NAD’s prestigious Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship, “Hawthorne and others were so incensed by this apparent act of discrimination that they privately raised the funds to support Johnson’s study in France.”[3]

In 1926, Johnson traveled to Paris, making a pilgrimage of sorts to the studio of Henry Ossawa Tanner. In 1928, he moved to southern France, where he met and befriended German expressionist Christoph Voll, his wife, and her sister Holcha Krake, a Danish artist working in ceramic and textile. The quartet traveled together extensively, making art and visiting museums in France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg. In 1929, Johnson returned to New York and submitted some of his paintings to the William E. Harmon Foundation’s annual competition. He won a gold medal in the Foundation’s “Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in the Fine Arts Field” category, and four of his paintings were chosen for inclusion in the Harmon Foundation annual exhibition. After trips to Florence, South Carolina—where his hometown welcomed him with an exhibition of Johnson’s work—and Washington, DC—where he visited with Alain Locke—Johnson returned to Europe in 1930. He married Krake, and the couple spent eight years living and working in Scandinavia.[4] During this time, Johnson painted a series of landscapes characterized by expressionistic lines and vivid colors.

In November of 1938, Johnson returned to the United States with Krake. They settled in New York, and in 1939 Johnson went to work for the Federal Art Project, teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center, a position he held until 1943. The Art Center had begun as a school established by Augusta Savage but was taken over by the WPA and turned into one of its neighborhood art centers during the Depression. It was a hub of cultural activity, drawing in artists like Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, and Gwendolyn Knight. Johnson completely transformed his approach to art. He abandoned landscape painting and expressionism in favor of narrative images of African Americans executed in a deliberately simplified—or as he put it, “primitive”—style. The idea of the primitive had held an appeal for Johnson throughout his career. But for Johnson, this term was almost a synonym for “folkloric.” Unlike European modernists who understood the “primitive” within a colonial framework that placed Europe at the top of an imagined scale of development, Johnson’s primitivism had more to do with “the community values and folkways of all marginalized peoples. ‘Primitives,’ concluded Johnson, ‘can be found all over the world.’”[5]

Johnson’s success in the 1940s was coupled with severe personal setbacks. A 1941 solo exhibition at the Alma Reed Galleries was followed by a studio fire in 1942 and the death of Krake less than two years later. Bereft, Johnson decided to move back to Denmark, where the couple’s friends and Krake’s family still lived. In Europe, his behavior became increasingly inconsistent, and in 1947, he was diagnosed with a mental illness and sent to a hospital in Long Island, where he remained until his death in 1970. In 1971, the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) organized William H. Johnson, 1901–1970, a major traveling retrospective exhibition accompanied by a catalogue. A second Smithsonian exhibition was organized in 1991 titled Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson, and in 1995, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery mounted the first commercial gallery exhibition of his work in over fifty years: William H. Johnson: Works from the Collection of Mary Beattie Brady, Director of the Harmon Foundation.

[1] Richard J. Powell, “‘In My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition’: William H. Johnson's ‘Jesus and the Three Marys,’”American Art, v.5, n.4 (Autumn, 1991), 21.

[2] Shlomo Levy, “William H. Johnson” Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham, eds., African American Lives (Oxford University Press, 2004), 305.

[3] Levy, 305.

[4] Levy, 305.

[5] Powell, “‘In My Family of Primitiveness and Tradition,’” 25.