William H. Johnson Children 1941

  • Not on view

Born in Florence, South Carolina, Johnson moved to France at age twenty-six and lived intermittently in Europe over the following twelve years. During this period, his output consisted largely of expressionistic landscapes made with impasto strokes of bold pigment. Upon returning to the United States in 1938, the artist changed course and began to develop a uniquely personal style, explicitly reflecting upon his ancestry through references to African American culture. Children is an example of Johnson’s explorations in this realm.

The three girls in *Children*—depicted from the waist up and tightly grouped in a row—embody the artist’s deliberately simplified visual vocabulary. Deploying stylized, nonillusionistic techniques, he rendered them not only flat, but also as nearly identical in their frontal stances, outward gazes, and jewel-toned outfits. Despite the ostensible directness of these subjects and their placement in this nondescript space, however, Johnson clearly tackled a political consideration in Children: the varied skin tones among these three figures remind us of the discriminatory practice, common at the time of this painting’s creation, of determining an individual’s legal (and social) status on the basis of skin pigmentation. In paintings like Children, Johnson—who identified as “both a primitive and a cultured painter”—offered a subtle repudiation of accepted standards of race in the United States.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Additional text

Take turns sharing what you notice about the children in this painting. How are their clothes and expressions similar? How are they different? Johnson was a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center when he made this painting. Inspired by the children he taught there, he made art with children in it. Their art also influenced how he painted, including the flat, 2D way he chose to show these children.

Kids label from 2022
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
Object number
Painting and Sculpture

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