In many respects it can be said that William Henry Johnson had a tragic life. An artist whose subjects ranged from scenes of daily life in New York City to the rural South, his work did not receive widespread recognition until after his death. A happy marriage to a Danish woman, Holche Krake, ended with her death from cancer. The Florence native became a victim of mental illness in 1947 and was institutionalized for the last 23 years of his life. Although considered a talented painter, he never fully realized his promise.
After he became ill, Johnson's work was stored in a warehouse in New York and nearly destroyed. The Harmon Foundation, an organization which supported black artists and promoted their work, saved the paintings in the mid-1950s. More than 1300 pieces were given to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in 1967. (You can view a sample of his paintings by going to the National Museum of American Art and typing in his name under the browse feature.) After the Museum exhibited his paintings, the importance of Johnson's work was recognized. Johnson's work has been exhibited in South Carolina, at the Greenville County Museum of Art in 1993 and the State Museum in Columbia in 1995.
William Johnson was born in 1901 in Florence, South Carolina. He grew up in poverty and like many of his generation had little education. His father, who supposedly was a prominent member of the white community, did nothing to help. His mother later married and had four more children. The stepfather was a hard worker and all was well for a time, until he was injured in an accident and unable to work. Johnson's mother cooked, washed and ironed for white families to feed her children. The oldest child, William, did fieldwork during the season, helped out at home, and looked after his younger brothers and sisters.
William began copying comic strips at an early age. A teacher who saw him drawing pictures in the dirt gave him some art supplies--pencils and paper. By the time he reached his teens, William had left school to help support his family, but had decided to become an artist and go to New York to study.
Johnson left South Carolina around 1919 for New York with his uncle who was seeking work. He worked for several years before he could afford to study art. He enrolled at the National Academy of Design, known for its high standards and rigorous training. He did well there, winning several prizes and coming to the attention of Charles Hawthorne, a teacher who took him under his wing. Hawthorne helped him financially by providing summer work and arranging for free tuition. Although Johnson won other awards over the next several years, he did not receive the most highly-prized award--to study in Europe for a year. Blaming it on prejudice, Hawthorne helped to raise enough money for Johnson to go to Europe.
In 1926 William Johnson left for Paris. Johnson was influenced by the work of the prominent artists of the day, including Gaugin and the Expressionist Chaim Soutine. Painting in the Expressionist style, Johnson began to exhibit his work in the late 1920s. Like other Expressionists, his work was intense and emotional. During this period he met and impressed the African-American expatriote artist Henry Tanner. However, Johnson's work did not receive the recognition and the public interest for which he had hoped. In 1929 he met his future wife, a fellow artist fifteen years his senior who specialized in weaving and ceramics. Traveling with Holcha Krake, he had the opportunity to visit museums throughout Europe, which must have been both an exhilarating and a depressing experience. He became aware of just how difficult success would be as an artist in Europe, where he was just one talent among many. Moreover, he faced the additional handicap of prejudice as an African-American artist. Hoping that winning recognition in America would be a step forward, he returned to the U.S. late in 1929. Another black artist he had met in Paris had told him that winning an award from the Harmon Foundation would be easy, so he entered six pictures in their competition. The Harmon judges were greatly impressed by his work, awarding him a gold medal and picking four pictures to exhibit in a show.
The excited Johnson headed back to Florence, South Carolina, to visit family and show his paintings to his mother. His work was exhibited locally and a story appeared in the local newspaper. However, several days later, he was arrested and jailed by the police while he was painting a local building. Johnson's anger at his unjust arrest led him to return to Europe. He did not return to Florence again for fourteen years.
William Johnson and Holcha Krake were married in 1930 in Denmark. During the next few years they lived in Denmark. The they studied weaving and pottery in Tunisia before returning back to Denmark. Making a living was difficult in the 1930s, but Johnson continued to paint. However, few of his works were sold. In 1938 the couple moved to New York, fearing the impact that Nazism would have on a black artist and his white wife. But life was difficult. Johnson could not find work, and the interracial couple experienced prejudice. It was impossible to find a sponsor in Depression-era America, and Johnson had to stand in line behind other, more successful artists to get a position with the Works Progress Administration (the WPA). Finally, he was hired to teach art at a local community center.
During this period, Johnson began to change his style of painting. Previously he had painted landscapes and people in what is referred to as a "full brush" style based on the influence of the Expressionists. Now he began to paint in what he termed a "primitive" style, using bright and contrasting colors and two dimensional figures and objects. His paintings of the African-American experience, focused at first around religious themes. They projected a sense of peace not found in his earlier work. As time went on, Johnson began to paint scenes of the everyday life of African-Americans. However, he continued to experience bad luck. First a fire destroyed much of his work and possessions. Then his work was shown in two exhibits. It seemed that success must follow, but with the coming of World War II, public attention turned elsewhere. Like many other artists, Johnson began to paint patriotic pictures of soldiers. In early 1943 at about the time his work began to be noticed, Holcha died of breast cancer. Johnson had already begun to exhibit odd behavior before his wife's death; now the grief stricken man began a gradual descent into mental illness.
Johnson returned home to Florence to visit his mother in 1944, painting a number of portraits of her and of other relatives. Still grieving for his wife, he planned to return to Denmark. He thought that perhaps he would marry Holcha's widowed sister. He worked and saved for the next few years, doing a historical series on African-Americans. However, by the time he left for Denmark in 1946, his mental illness had begun to worsen. Arriving in Denmark, he stayed for awhile with his late wife's family. Traveling to Norway for an exhibit, he became confused and was found lost in the streets. He was sent back to New York and never painted again. He was hospitalized until his death in 1970.
Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993)
Day, Jeffrey. "Painting Nurtured Back to Life." The State (October 15, 1995), F1.
Day, Jeffrey. "An Artist Comes Home." The State (October 15, 1995), F1, F3.
Day, Jeffrey. "Artist's Genius Exceeds Tragedy." The State (December 3, 1995), F1, F3.
Day, Jeffrey. "Previously Ignored, S.C. Painter's Works Displayed in Greenville." The State (June 17, 1993), 1B, 5B.
Day, Jeffrey. "Art." The State (September 3, 1995), F1, F3.
Day, Jeffrey. "Fund to restore Johnson painting closer to goal." The State (April 14, 1996), F3.
Day, Jeffrey. "W.H. Johnson painting must be saved." The State (January 28, 1996), F3.