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White Gray Black

William H. Johnson (American, 1901–1970)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter. His early education was intermittent, but his drawing skills were developed through cartoon work for local newspapers. At 17 he moved to New York, where he found work as a stevedore, cook and hotel porter. From 1923 to 1926 he attended the National Academy of Design in New York and Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art at Provincetown. On his graduation funds were raised by supporters to enable further study in Paris, where he stayed for three years, absorbing the impact of such European Expressionists as Chaïm Soutine and simplifying his paintings to bold rhythmic compositions. In Paris he met Holcha Krake (1885–1944), a Danish textile designer, whom he married. The couple travelled through Europe, returning to the USA in 1930. Endorsed by the artist George Luks, Johnson received an award from the Harmon Foundation for ‘Distinguished Achievement among Negroes’. He subsequently developed a broader technique with richness of texture and colour. With his wife he settled in Denmark, travelling to Tunisia in 1932 to study art and crafts. A visit to Scandinavia inspired dynamic landscapes that found an interested critical response. This period marked the height of the artist’s expressionist phase. After returning to New York (1938), Johnson changed his style to produce flat designs with patterns of brilliant colour, emulating stained glass, depicting religious subjects and scenes from Black American history, for example Going to Church (c. 1940–44). His wife’s death was destabilizing and to maintain a precarious existence he took work in the Navy Yard, but he left in 1946 to stay with his wife’s family in Denmark. However, he returned to New York to be hospitalized in Islip, Long Island, where he remained until his death. His estate of 1100 works was accommodated by the Harmon Foundation until its closure, when it was dispersed among interested organizations.


From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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