Known for the dignity with which he portrayed African Americans, Harlem Renaissance artist Malvin Gray Johnson produced some of his most celebrated images not in New York, but in Virginia. In 1934, Johnson used funding he had received from the Works Progress Administration’s Public Works of Art project to return to his native South and record the daily lives of African Americans there. As in his urban scenes, Johnson painted his subjects performing menial tasks with grace and vitality. Alain Locke praised Johnson for his ability to capture the cynical humor and mythical desolation in the moods of blacks better than most other artists. It came as quite a shock when this rising star in the art world died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight after returning to New York City. His death occurred just a few months before his Virginia scenes were to be exhibited in a solo exhibition at Delphic Studio and on the heels of the completion of a documentary film sponsored by the Harmon Foundation that addressed obstacles faced by Johnson and other African American artists.
Gray Johnson’s interest in art began as a youth in Greensboro, North Carolina. Though he may have felt discouraged by the absence of local black artists and lack of formal instruction available to aspiring African American artists, his older sister, a recent graduate of the nearby teachers college, supported his creative inclinations and provided basic lessons. During these early years, Johnson, with his sister’s help, entered his paintings in local fairs and exhibitions whenever possible. Confidence gained from these experiences led Johnson to pursue further studies after his family moved to New York in 1912 and, four years later, to apply for admission into the National Academy of Design. Although his call to service during World War I postponed his enrollment, Johnson returned from his military duty in France determined to complete his training. He experienced considerable success during his tenure at the National Academy, earning nine awards for his art during the late 1920s. Upon graduating in 1927, Johnson worked as a commercial artist and received sponsorship from the WPA.
The classicism of Johnson’s early painting style changed when he encountered African sculpture, cubism, and Cezanne’s post-impressionism while studying at the National Academy. Inspired by Cezanne’s reduction of forms into basic geometric shapes and facets of color, Johnson began experimenting with color and light in his own work. His later style—characterized by simplified forms, vitality of color, and the incorporation of African imagery and aesthetics into a planar composition—fell under the umbrella of Symbolic Abstraction. Johnson may have gravitated toward abstraction stylistically, but his preference for portraiture, genre, and spiritual subject matter did not change, and his paintings were celebrated for their emotional resonance. In 1928, Johnson’s best known work, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, received the top prize at the Harmon Foundation’s annual exhibition; Roll, Jordan, Roll was entered in the 1931 competition. The press praised Johnson’s spiritual paintings as “evidence of the black artist’s potential to make a distinctive contribution to American culture.”
When Johnson died at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, stunned friends and critics mourned the loss of one of the most influential and promising African American artists of the era. Unfortunately, many museums and galleries that did not prioritize African American art in the 1930s misplaced or lost Johnson’s work shortly after his death. Only sixty works (primarily watercolors and oils) are known to exist today. Johnson’s work is held in the collections of museums nationwide, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hampton University Museum of Art, and Amistad Research Center.