Regarded as one of the most progressive painters of his time and as one of the South’s most revered twentieth century artists, William Henry Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina. Raised in humble circumstances, his early interest in art was borne out largely by copying comic strips that ran in the local newspaper. Confronted with the limited opportunities available to young African Americans and determined to pursue his craft, Johnson left home at the age of seventeen, settling in Harlem. For the next three years, he worked a series of menial jobs to underwrite his enrollment at the National Academy of Design in 1921. While there, he received numerous honors and earned the support of one of the instructors, Charles Hawthorne. Hawthorne would prove to be a key figure in the promising artist’s development, sponsoring Johnson’s attendance at the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and later raising money to fund the expense of a trip abroad.
Arriving in Paris in 1926, Johnson thrilled to the city’s rich cultural scene and its participants. His friendships with modern artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and exposure to the works of Munch, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Soutine inspired him to experiment with color and form in ways that transcended his formal academic training. During an extended sojourn to a charming French fishing village, Cagnes-sur-Mer, he met a Danish textile artist, Holcha Krake, and eventually married her in 1930. Their unlikely courtship—given their differences in race, culture, and age—was briefly interrupted in 1929, when Johnson made a return visit to the United States. It was during this time in New York that Johnson received important recognition from the Harmon Foundation; the following year, he was awarded the organization’s Gold Medal.
Living in Kerteminde, Denmark, a seaside tourist destination, Johnson and Krake found ample subject matter for their art. Johnson’s expressionistic paintings from this period—often depicting the colorful harbor or countryside—are characterized by thick, energetic brushstrokes and a highly keyed palette. Though their exhibition opportunities were rather localized and resulted in few sales, the couple was quite happy, exploring the continent and making art. When, in 1938, the specter of world war became impossible to deny, the pair moved to New York, where Johnson soon found employment with Works Progress Administration initiatives.
The return to America triggered a striking shift in Johnson’s paintings. He employed simpler contours and flat planes of color; much of his work was figurative and increasingly primitive. Drawing on African American culture and history, as well as African lore, he executed several series of paintings that featured religious subjects, political themes, the black experience in the rural South and the modern military. Johnson avowed that “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; two years later, his beloved wife died of cancer. Grief-stricken and living in Scandinavia, Johnson began to suffer mental breakdowns. Following a collapse in Oslo, he was eventually escorted by emissaries from the United States consulate to a New York mental hospital where he spent the last twenty-three years of his life. Johnson died there in 1970 from syphilis-induced paresis. The bulk of the artist’s work and papers were unceremoniously stored in a New York warehouse before being turned over to the Harmon Foundation. When that organization closed in 1967, more than one thousand of Johnson’s works were gifted to the Smithsonian Institution, which remains the largest repository of the artist’s oeuvre.