Regarded as one of the most progressive painters of his day, William Henry Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, the son of an African American mother and absent white father. Growing up in modest circumstances, his early interest in art was sparked by copying comic strips that ran in the local newspaper. He left home at the age of seventeen, moved to Harlem, and, for the next three years, worked a series of menial jobs to underwrite his enrollment at the National Academy of Design in 1921. At the academy, Johnson received numerous honors and earned the crucial support of one particular instructor, Charles Hawthorne. Worried that “the youth’s talent would be crushed by poverty and prejudice,” Hawthorne played a key role in the promising artist’s development, sponsoring Johnson’s attendance at the Cape Cod School of Art and later raising money to underwrite a trip abroad.

Arriving in Paris in 1926, Johnson thrilled to the city’s vibrant cultural scene and its participants. His friendships with modern artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and the exposure to the works of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne inspired Johnson to experiment with color and form in ways that transcended his formal academic training. During an extended sojourn to the French fishing village of Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1929, he met Holcha Krake, a Danish textile artist sixteen years his senior. Their unlikely courtship—given their differences in race, culture, and age—was briefly interrupted when, in late 1929, Johnson made a return visit to the United States in hopes of solidifying his American reputation. His submission of six paintings to the Harmon Foundation arrived after the application deadline that autumn, but was permitted to stand at the request of juror George Luks. The jury then voted unanimously to recognize Johnson with the gold Distinguished Achievement Award.

After marrying in 1930, the newlyweds set up house in Kerteminde, Denmark, a seaside tourist destination replete with subject matter. Johnson’s expressionistic paintings from this period—often depicting the charming harbor or countryside—are characterized by thick, energetic brushstrokes and a highly keyed palette. Although their exhibition opportunities were rather localized and resulted in few sales, the couple was quite happy, exploring the continent and making art. In 1938, the specter of world war became impossible to deny. The pair moved to New York, where Johnson eventually found employment with WPA initiatives.

The return to America was challenging and triggered a striking shift in Johnson’s paintings. Johnson abandoned the avant-garde style that had characterized his European pictures in favor of simpler contours and flat planes of color. Much of his new output was figurative and increasingly, as the artist described, “primitive.” “I myself feel like a primitive man . . . both a primitive and a cultured painter,” Johnson said. “My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel both rhythmically and spiritually—all that has been saved up in my family of primitiveness and tradition, and which is now concentrated in me.” 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 rural South, and the modern military.

Tragedy struck in 1942 when Johnson’s Greenwich Village studio burned; two years later, Holcha died of breast cancer. Following a decade of incremental mental deterioration, Johnson suffered a complete psychiatric break in 1947 and was subsequently institutionalized until his death twenty-three years later.

The significance of William H. Johnson’s legacy might have been diminished if not for the support of the Harmon Foundation. In 1956, the Foundation was appointed trustee of Johnson’s entire estate. This estate consisted of over one thousand paintings, drawings, and prints that had been moldering in a New York City warehouse for nine years, the rent unpaid and the works untended. After cataloguing, conserving, framing, and safely storing the works, the Foundation lent Johnson’s works to major museum exhibitions and highlighted them in its own presentations and publications. When the Harmon Foundation ceased operations in 1967, it entrusted Johnson’s estate to what is now known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The donation agreement stipulated that the museum use the works to inspire people to “raise their sights and . . . feeling for art at the core of life.” That museum remains the largest repository of the artist’s oeuvre.