Painter. Born in Florence on March 18, 1901, to Henry Johnson who worked as a fireman for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and Alice Smoot, a cook and domestic, Johnson emerged as one of the most important African American artists of the twentieth century. Johnson’s uncle and namesake, Willie Smoot, was a Pullman porter who encouraged his nephew’s move to Harlem about 1918. Prior to that time, young Johnson had displayed a talent for drawing and was an avid student and copyist of newspaper cartoons.
Once in New York, Johnson took odd jobs before enrolling in 1921 at the National Academy of Design, where fees were modest and tuition was free. His teachers included Charles Hinton and Charles Curran for drawing and still life, and Charles Webster Hawthorne, who impressed on his students the importance of color. Johnson spent three summers, 1924 to 1926, at Hawthorne’s Cape Cod Summer School. When Johnson did not win a coveted traveling scholarship, Hawthorne financed a study trip abroad, calculating that his protégé would face less discrimination in France. Johnson painted for a while in Paris, and in 1928 settled in Cagnes-sur-Mer, in southern France, where he fell under the spell of Chaim Soutine, an expressionistic painter popular at the time.
In late 1929, Johnson returned to the United States for six months, spending time in New York and making a visit to Florence. He was awarded a gold medal by the Harmon Foundation, a philanthropic organization that recognized the achievements of African Americans in literature, music, art, business, and education. In 1930 Johnson married Holcha Krake, a Danish weaver he had met in France, and settled in Kerteminde, Denmark. They traveled extensively; in 1932 they went to Tunisia, and in 1935 to Oslo, Norway, where he met Edvard Munch. In late 1938, under the threat of Nazism, Johnson and Krake left Scandinavia for New York. Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, Johnson taught in Harlem, and became actively involved with other African Americans. At this time his work changed dramatically from highly charged and heavily textured oil paintings in the manner of European expressionists to flatter compositions, often in gouache, that reflect his African roots and the rhythms of the Jazz Age. His subject matter shifted as well, toward the African American experience: farming in rural South Carolina, Harlem street life, Negro spirituals, and blacks in the military. Figurative work featured portraits of family and friends and a series devoted to African American heroes.
Because of World War II and several unfortunate occurrences (a studio fire and various illnesses), Johnson and his wife did not prosper. After Krake’s death from cancer in 1944, Johnson’s mental and physical health deteriorated, and in 1947 he was admitted to the Central Islip State Hospital where he stayed until his death on April 13, 1970, from pancreatitis. His paintings were initially warehoused under the auspices of the Harmon Foundation, but when the foundation closed in 1967, more than 1,150 works were transferred to the National Collection of the Fine Arts (the Smithsonian American Art Museum). Additional examples of his work can be found at the Columbia Museum of Art, Gibbes Museum of Art, Greenville County Museum of Art, and Florence Museum. See plate 33.
Breeskin, Adelyn D. William H. Johnson, 1901–1970. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1971.
Powell, Richard J. Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1991.
Turner, Steve, and Victoria Dailey. William H. Johnson: Truth be Told. Los Angeles: Seven Arts, 1998.