William H. Johnson’s Art Was for His People

The painter’s entire “Fighters for Freedom” series is now on view for the first time in more than 75 years

a colorful painting with three standing figures
Three Great Abolitionists: A. Lincoln, F. Douglass, J. Brown, c. 1945. The onetime expressionist saw his stark new style as “not a change but a development.” Smithsonian American Art Museum / Gift of the Harmon Foundation

The African American artist William H. Johnson (1901-1970) had been painting expressionist landscapes in Europe for more than a decade when the threat of war forced him to return to the United States in 1938. With the move home came a dramatic shift in style and subject, as Johnson heeded Harlem Renaissance leader Alain Locke’s call to “do something on your own people.” “He committed to Black life in America,” says Virginia Mecklenburg, a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which holds more than 1,000 of Johnson’s works. This phase of his career, characterized by a pseudo-folk sensibility that hints at African sculpture, culminated in his Fighters for Freedom series, now on a national tour organized by the museum. The series places the Black American story within a broader global struggle, celebrating civil rights heroes like Frederick Douglass as well as leaders working toward peace in the wake of World War II. It’s the first time these paintings will appear together in more than 75 years, notes Mecklenburg, “and it’s something that seems to me ever more timely.”

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $19.99

This article is a selection from the January/February 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.