Collection 1880s–1940s

William H. Johnson. Children. 1941

Oil and pencil on wood panel, 17 1/2 × 12 1/2" (44.5 × 31.8 cm). Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (by exchange), Agnes Gund, Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, and the Hudgins Family

Amber Hunnicutt: My name is Amber Hunnicutt. I am a museum educator and my job is to help people connect with art and with each other. You’re looking at a painting by the artist William H. Johnson, called Children, created in 1941.

I first encountered this painting when I came to work at MoMA and I just loved their outfits. I love how each of them has a matching shirt with a contrasting collar and then a hat and the funky patterns. But then once I looked closer and thought about the context, 1941—that was such a different time to be a Black child. There were laws that made it so Black people didn't have the same rights as white people. So it made me think more about what these children were going through at the time.

I think it was very intentional on William H. Johnson’s part of showing these different shades of brown skin. Because in addition to racism, Black people had to deal with colorism. I’m thinking about the figure in the center who has light skin. The other two are more likely to be discriminated against based on their skin tone.

There’s a lot that we could read into the facial expressions of the children. The raised eyebrow absolutely stands out to me. Sort of like, “Huh, what's going on here? What's making them raise their eyebrow?” I feel like a lot of times kids keep it real in ways that adults do not. You can see things on their faces that an adult might try to hide.

I’m someone who grew up in a family where we did not talk about feelings. But I think that art can be a really incredible tool for reflecting on our own emotions and others’ emotions and really putting ourselves in other’s shoes.