William H. Johnson: Painter
Born on March 8, 1901 in Florence South Carolina, William H. Johnson became one of the most important and influential artists in American history. Over the course of his life, his work shifted through movements and mediums. As a child he copied comic strips and began telling stories through pictures. As an adult, he shifted to painting impressionistic cityscapes and landscapes.
While traveling in the North of France, he met and married Danish textile Artist Holcha Krake and lived, well received, near her home in Denmark. In 1933, the couple traveled for several months among the artists of North Africa, learning ancient artistry methods including ceramics. They then bicycled across Norway painting and crafting along the way.
With World War II looming on the horizon, the Johnson’s returned to the United States. During this period, Johnson became interested in religious paintings with African American subjects. This is when Johnson developed his “consciously naïve” style using a pallet of only four colors to paint on scraps of plywood or burlap.
In 1944, Holcha died of cancer and Johnson went into a tailspin that nearly ended his career and his life. After 14 years without setting foot in the place, Johnson decided to return home to Florence, South Carolina and the comfort of his mother. Grieving, in 1945 Johnson began his social political paintings, his last paintings, the paintings that speak to my soul.
In 1946, Johnson left the United States to be with his wife’s family in Denmark. His behavior became increasingly erratic and he was diagnosed with syphilis which had, in turn, induced a mental disorder and motor function impairment. Denmark returned him to the U.S. as mentally defective.
Johnson was placed into the custody of a court and appointed an attorney who put Johnson in Central Islip State Hospital and his personal belongings (ARTWORK!) in storage. Johnson spent the last 20 years of his life at Islip, he did not paint after 1955 and died in there in 1970. As for his art, in 1956, it was nearly destroyed for failure to pay the storage bills but thankfully for all of us, patrons of the arts stepped in and it survived. In 1967, 1,000 of his paintings were given to the Smithsonian.
On the occasion of his centennial in 2001, the William H. Johnson Foundation for the Arts was established. The Foundation annually awards the William H. Johnson Prize to an African American Artist who is early in his or her career.
True to form, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in 2012 honoring Johnson as one of the nation’s foremost black artist and major figure in 20th century American art. The stamp showcases Johnson’s painting Flowers (1939–40), which depicts a brightly colored bouquet on a small red table.
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