Tuesday, January 21, 2014

William Henry Johnson, Artist

William Henry Johnson (March 18, 1901–1970) was an African-American painter born in Florence, South Carolina. He 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).

Johnson moved from Florence, South Carolina, to New York City at the age of 17. Working a variety of jobs, he saved enough money to pay for classes at the prestigious National Academy of Design. He worked with the painter Charles Hawthorne, who raised funds that allowed Johnson to go abroad to study. He spent the late 1920s in France, where he learned about modernism. During this time, he met the Danish textile artist Holcha Krake in Cagnes-sur-Mer and they married in 1930. Johnson and his wife spent most of the 1930s in Scandinavia, where his interest in folk art influenced his painting. They returned to the United States in 1938, where Johnson immersed himself in African-American culture and traditions, producing paintings that were characterized by their folk art simplicity.

Johnson enjoyed a degree of success as an artist during the 1940s and 1950s, but he was never able to achieve financial stability. In 1944 his wife Holcha 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 last twenty-three years of his life. He stopped painting in 1956 and died on January 1, 1970.

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. 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. An expanded version of this exhibition traveled to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (February 3 - April 8, 2007),the Philadelphia Museum of Art (May 20 - August 12, 2007), and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama (September 15 - November 18, 2007).

In 2012, the United States 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.

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