William H. Johnson
Oil on plywood
Smithsonian American Art Museum
The work of William H. Johnson, born in rural Florence, South Carolina, at the turn of the 20th century, was heavily influenced by the Expressionist art of Northern Europe. After living in Europe for years, Johnson returned to the United States to flee the Nazi threat. “When he returned, he dropped the illusion of high art,” American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun says. “He resolved to change his style. He wanted to paint the story of his people. He painted a number of things that relate to what he saw as the black experience.” Johnson’s new simplified style featured bright colors and flattened images.
Although Johnson had a tragic career—he spent the last 23 years of his life in a mental institution—the works chosen by the Obama White House are vibrant pieces that encapsulate the African-American experience. "Everything that they've picked is on the upbeat side, life enhancing pieces," says Broun.