The early 20th century produced an audaciously talented but tragic figure in the painter William H. Johnson. From his very humble beginnings in the Jim Crow South, he worked to fulfill his dreams in Harlem before meeting his devastating demise in Europe. Though several solo exhibitions celebrated his work before his death in 1970 and in the following decades, the current show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)—“Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice”—presents Johnson’s ambitious work to a new generation.

The curator of the exhibition, Virginia Mecklenburg, says Johnson’s legacy is “recognized within a community of people who know and collect work by African American artists. He’s a rock star for them. What the goal is, is to have him be a rock star artist for everybody else.”

Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901 to hard-working parents; his father shoveled coal for the railroad, and his mother was a cook at the YMCA and a domestic worker. At a young age, Johnson held odd jobs at both the railroad station and YMCA, where he was able to see the comings and goings of a range of people. He picked up discarded newspapers to look at the comics. Though his teachers wove music, art and poetry into their lessons, his school did not have a dedicated art program. But one teaching assistant later recalled discovering a portrait Johnson had made of her, rendered with remarkable accuracy.

How Painting Portraits of Freedom Fighters Became William H. Johnson’s Life’s Work
William H. Johnson, Self-Portrait with Pipe, ca. 1937, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.913

At the age of 17, Johnson left his segregated hometown for New York City. World War I was creating new jobs in the mechanical industries of the North, and a wave of Black people fled the south for places where they could earn a better living and fulfill their dreams. Johnson’s uncle, who was a Pullman porter on the New York City-Miami train route, welcomed him into his home in Harlem in 1918. Though Johnson struggled at first to become self-sufficient, this was when he really started to contemplate the idea of becoming a newspaper cartoonist.

In 1921, Johnson enrolled in classes at the National Academy of Design. He excelled as a student, winning all the awards the school had to offer with at least at an honorable mention designation. One of Johnson’s most influential instructors, Charles Webster Hawthorne, helped shape Johnson’s early painting style. And when Hawthorne opened the Cape Cod School of Art, Johnson worked around the school as a handyman to earn tuition. He attended the summer program for three consecutive years. For his dedication to his artistry, he received cash prizes totaling more than $300.

In his final year as a student, Johnson applied for the $1,500 Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship. Though many thought that he was a perfect candidate, he did not receive the scholarship. So, Hawthorne personally raised $1,000 among his friends and colleagues to send Johnson to Paris for a year.

Paris was filled with artists developing new styles, including Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and Constructivism. But Johnson moved to a town called Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France. He’d been influenced by an Expressionist painter, Chaim Soutine, who painted townscapes there, though Johnson never mentioned the artist by name in the letters he wrote to friends. He wrote instead that he wanted to “work out a style of [his] own.”

"Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice" Introduction
How Painting Portraits of Freedom Fighters Became William H. Johnson’s Life’s Work
William H. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.643

During his time in France, Johnson held several exhibitions. He became part of a small group of African American expats, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, Hale Woodruff, Lois Mailou Jones, Palmer C. Hayden, Laura Wheeler Waring, May Howard Jackson, Archibald Motley Jr. and Augusta Savage. All of these artists found that although white people in France still viewed them as different, they did not face the same injustices that were common in the United States.

After three years, Johnson moved back to New York and rented a dilapidated studio above a garage in Harlem. Shortly after his return, he contacted George Luks, an artist who had employed him briefly before his sojourn in France. After observing how Johnson had grown as an artist, Luks nominated him for the Harmon Foundation’s 1929 Award for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes in the fine arts field. Though the application period had ended several months earlier, Luks urged the jurors to consider Johnson. That year Johnson unanimously won the gold medal and a cash prize of $400. The Harmon Foundation traveling exhibition that followed the awards included three of Johnson’s landscapes, two of his portraits and one self-portrait. His works were considered the most experimental in the show and earned high praise from the press.

How Painting Portraits of Freedom Fighters Became William H. Johnson’s Life’s Work
William H. Johnson, Haile Selassie, ca. 1945, oil on plywood. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.607R-V
How Painting Portraits of Freedom Fighters Became William H. Johnson’s Life’s Work
William H. Johnson, Marian Anderson, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.657

In 1930, Johnson returned to Europe and married the Danish artist Holcha Krake, whom he’d met during his first visit to France. Though Krake was white, their community accepted the union. The Great Depression stalled sales of Johnson’s work in America, but in the spring of 1932, they traveled to Tunisia, where he hoped he would find “the real me.” From there, he and Krake moved to her native Denmark. But as Adolf Hitler’s Germany became more menacing, the couple returned to New York in 1938.

In 1940, the city was abuzz with African American celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was an exciting time to be Black. That year, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Academy Award, for Gone With the Wind; Richard Wright published his seminal novel Native Son; and musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald performed throughout the country. Around this time, Johnson painted scenes from the Savoy Ballroom and used newspaper clippings as source material to document historic events like a Joe Louis boxing match. He reconsidered folk narratives of the rural South and the Civil War. He declared that painting his people would be his life’s work.

In this period, Johnson’s painting style went through a notable shift from European landscapes and portraits to abstracted and simplified Black figures. He leaned heavily into what was known as the “primitive style.” In a 1932 interview, he had told a reporter, “Even if I have studied for many years in New York, and all over the world … and know more about Scandinavian literature and classical music than my wife does, I have still been able to preserve the primitive in me.”

As the 1940s progressed, he started his Fighters for Freedom series, a tribute to activists, scientists, teachers and performers who worked against colonialism, racism, violence and oppression. Johnson did not simply create portraits of laureates like Marian Anderson, Haile Selassie, Harriet Tubman, George Washington and many others who are featured in the series. He also used the canvases to create elaborate narratives about their impact on the Black experience.

How Painting Portraits of Freedom Fighters Became William H. Johnson’s Life’s Work
William H. Johnson, Swearing in George Washington, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.653
How Painting Portraits of Freedom Fighters Became William H. Johnson’s Life’s Work
William H. Johnson, Women Builders, 1945, oil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.1150

After Johnson completed the series, he felt he had done what he was destined to do. His wife had died in 1944, and he was unsure where to go next. He wrote to her family: “I [have] now completed it all from my people’s fight early 1800s to date. Spirituals, poor workers, sharecroppers, city lives, jitterbugs, dancers, war scenes, Red Cross, religious themes, families down South—portraits of all I could paint [of] history’s Great men, women—fighter[s] for Freedom.” He returned to Denmark to live near Krake’s family, but they noticed that his temperament was odd. After six months in Denmark, he traveled to Oslo, where he lived as a vagrant and was soon picked up by the authorities. They discovered that he was an American and had money, so they turned him over to the United States, where he was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease and admitted to the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island in 1947. He remained there, never painting again, until his death in 1970.

Approximately 1,300 of Johnson’s objects were in jeopardy of being discarded when his money ran out in the 1950s. Friends who visited him in the hospital intervened and asked the Harmon Foundation to take responsibility for preserving his art, and it agreed. When the foundation closed in 1967, it passed the collection along to SAAM. The Smithsonian museum donated 150 of Johnson’s artworks to historically Black colleges and universities, including Howard, Hampton, Morgan State and Clark Atlanta.

Though “Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice,” with 34 paintings from the series, has already traveled to Charleston, South Carolina; Albany, Georgia; Oklahoma City; and other spots, the SAAM exhibition features artifacts from other Smithsonian collections to supplement the paintings done by Johnson. Alongside his painting of Harriet Tubman is a shawl gifted to her by Queen Victoria, borrowed from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Interactive QR codes offer more information and curator talks on particular artworks. The exhibition will go on to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami in late September.

“Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through September 8.

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