One of the most well known artists with Southern roots is William H. Johnson. He was born in Florence, South Carolina in 1901 and started his artistic journey by copying comic strips from the newspaper. Due to his financial situation and race relations there were very few opportunities to study art as an African American in the South so he moved to New York City in 1918. After working various odd jobs for three years he was finally able to scrape together tuition money to attend the National Academy of Design. While there, he won numerous awards and honors and gained the support of one of the instructors, Charles Hawthorne. During his time at the Academy, Johnson worked as a studio assistant to another teacher, George Luks, and spent summers studying at Hawthorne’s art school in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
When Johnson did not win the coveted Pulitzer Travelling Scholarship, Hawthorne and Luks raised the money for him to study in Europe. Johnson’s journey to Europe opened his eyes to a life without the discrimination that he faced in the United States. While there he met the African American expatriate artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and also studied the works of Munch, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Soutine. During his travels he met a Danish textile artist, Holcha Krake, and eventually married her and the couple settled in Denmark.
Johnson’s paintings during his time in Europe usually consist of thick, energetic brushstrokes which are almost frantic – perhaps influenced by his study of the Expressionists. Johnson did not want to paint in a realistic fashion. He felt that “to paint a picture that reaches the level of art, the painter creates something personal and uses the landscape as the motif for creating this feeling of art. Otherwise it isn’t art but just a copy of nature.”
With the threat of World War II and Johnson’s desire to “paint his people” the couple moved to New York in 1938 and Johnson began working for the Works Progress Administration. At this time his painting technique changed to a more schematic style with simple contours and flat planes of color. In a way they are similar to the cartoons that he copied as a child. Many of his paintings at this time were based on various series: representations of Negro life in Harlem; Negro life in Florence, SC; fighters for liberty; and wartime scenes. Johnson was also inspired by Negro spirituals, music, and art. He said, “my aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what 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.”
Tragedy struck in 1942 when Johnson’s studio burned down and two years later, Johnson’s beloved wife died of cancer. Johnson traveled back to visit Holcha’s relatives in Denmark in 1946. He was later found confused and disoriented wandering the streets in Norway. Johnson was diagnosed with syphilis-induced dementia and was returned to New York City in 1947. He was placed in the Central Islip State Hospital where he remained for the rest of his life. With the onset of his disease, Johnson never painted again. It was truly a tragic end for one of South Carolina’s most talented native sons. The majority of Johnson’s paintings were given to the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art – Smithsonian Institution).