Note: Click on small image to see a larger version.

Read the following biographical information and look carefully at the images. Answer the questions at the end.


Self Portrait

c. 1923-26
Although Johnson was the son of an African American woman and a white man, he was raised by his mother and an African American step-father. The family was poor but Johnson did finally receive professional art training at the National Academy of Design, where he won many prizes, one of which enabled him to study in Paris. He graduated in 1926.

Still Life

c. 1923-26
Like the preceding, this painting was done in college.


After spending several years in Europe after college, Johnson returned to South Carolina to see his family. Jim is his 16 year old brother.

Young Dane

c. 1931-32
watercolor and pencil
In 1930 Johnson married a Danish weaver, Holcha Krake, and established residence in Denmark. His paintings there were primarily landscapes.

Willie and Holcha

c. 1935
hand-colored woodcut
In 1932 the couple traveled to Africa. This double portrait has parallels with African sculpture.
In 1938 Johnson and his wife moved to the United States. (World War II was about to break out.) Johnson said he felt a need to paint his own people. He was beginning to see that the art of the people (that is, folk art) was equal to that of so-called "fine" art. Consequently, both his subject matter and his style changed to reflect the art of the "folk." The angular figures in these later paintings also reflect his interest in African sculpture.

Street life--Harlem

c. 1939-40
This stylishly dressed couple (the man has on spats, the woman, gloves) tell us that Harlem is an exciting, sophisticated "city."
A number of Johnson's paintings focus on the rural South and the common activities of its African American inhabitants. Although these paintings look "simple," an artist's mind is clearly at work. Note the ways he arranges the compositions, color patterns, and decorative bands of repeated color. The rhythmical effects reflect the influence of African textiles.

I Baptize Thee

c. 1940

Farm Couple at Work

c. 1940
Johnson did a series of "Breakdown" paintings. Breakdown refers not only to old cars but to people who have to cope with life's hardships. The term in Blues songs means utter despair: " I have rambled and I have rambled/Until I have broke my poor self down." Crosses as hood ornaments and kneeling figures may suggest spiritual healing.

Breakdown with Flat Tire

c. 1940-41

Going to Church

c. 1940-41
Although Johnson didn't serve in World War II, he did a number of tempera paintings depicting African Americans' involvement in the war effort. None, however, celebrate military involvement.

K. P.

c. 1942
tempera, pen, ink, pencil
Demeaning chores in the military were often assigned to African Americans.


c. 1939
Johnson's wife Holcha died in 1944. Many of his paintings after her death depict Afrocentric versions of Christ's Passion. Note the raised arm of Mary--a spiritual gesture related to Black religious experience.

Little Girl in Green

This is one of Johnson's last paintings. He was committed to a mental institution where he remained until his death in 1970

Richard Hunt (born 1935)

Extended Forms

Having read this brief biographical history of Johnson, discuss how the transitions in his artistic career relate to the theme of identity. It is important to know that many African Americans were artists in the 18th and 19th century; but in order to be successful (and sell to white audiences primarily), they had to be artists first, largely ignoring their heritage and traditions. If you are African American or identify with an ethnic minority, how are your identity conflicts similar to Johnson's? If you are white, how do they differ? Note too that Richard Hunt, a very well-known sculptor, is African American, but his works are abstract and rarely reflect his heritage. Do you think an artist should reflect his/her ethnic background? Is it a cop-out if s/he doesn't? (Do white artists have to worry about this?) This is a difficult and controversial issue.

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Information for this page is largely from a National Museum of Art exhibition catalog: Richard J. Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (New York: Norton, 1991).