William H. Johnson


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Painter. During his early maturity, he worked as a sophisticated and passionate expressionist, influenced particularly by Chaim Soutine's example. In paintings of this period, agitated lines enclose flattened forms rendered with rich and spontaneous brushwork. He also produced forceful woodcuts, usually hand-colored, that recall German expressionist precedents. In a distinct stylistic turn, after 1938 he focused on his African-American heritage in narrative paintings and serigraphs executed in a colorful, patterned, less painterly approach based on precedents in naive, untrained work, although bearing some stylistic ties to the earlier relief prints. His new direction reflected the Harlem Renaissance's pride in black life and recent successes of Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin, who used simplified styles to treat similar subject matter. Johnson's devotion to characterizing an aspect of national life also paralleled the objectives of contemporaries in the American Scene movement. Some observers have thought his change of style resulted from a long-standing search for authenticity in folk culture, while others emphasize calculated careerism. Born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1918 William Henry Johnson moved to New York, where he trained at the National Academy of Design. There, Charles Hawthorne offered particular encouragement as he developed an accomplished form of realism. Johnson worked also with George Luks before heading for Paris in the fall of 1926. After returning to the United States for some months in 1929–30, he married a Danish ceramist and weaver, and settled with her in the fishing village of Kerteminde. They traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa, and lived for a time in Norway, before returning to New York in 1938. Between 1939 and 1943, Johnson received support from federal art projects. By the mid-1940s, the quality of his art was in decline as he showed increasing symptoms of mental deterioration. During an impulsive return to Scandinavia in 1946–47, he suffered a breakdown and upon his return was committed permanently to a state hospital on Long Island. He did not resume painting. The turbulent, spiritually charged Sun Setting, Denmark (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1930–32) reveals the emotional fervor and knowledgeable grasp of European models that characterize Johnson's earlier style. During these years, he generally focused on nonliterary subjects such as figure studies, landscape, and still life. Colorfully depicting a barefoot farmer with his produce-laden donkey, Going to Market (Smithsonian American Art Museum, c. 1940) features stylistic and thematic characteristics of his later paintings. In addition to memories of the rural South, major subjects of these years include contemporary life in Harlem, African-American history, and the World War II experience of blacks in the military and on the home front. In addition, Johnson broke new ground in his renderings of Christian motifs enacted by black figures.

Subjects: Art.

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