William H. Johnson. Children. 1941

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

At the age of seventeen, Johnson moved from South Carolina, his birthplace, to New York City, where he studied at the National Academy of Design. He then traveled to Europe and North Africa, during which time he largely painted expressionist landscapes. In 1938, with the threat of World War II looming, Johnson returned to the United States. He settled in Harlem, where he immersed himself in the community, which resulted in a pronounced shift in both the subject matter and style of his work. Johnson began depicting scenes of everyday African American life in Harlem and in the South, using flat compositions and vibrant colors, as can be seen in Children.

Gallery label from Studio Visit: Selected Gifts from Agnes Gund, 2018
Medium
Oil and pencil on wood panel
Dimensions
17 1/2 × 12 1/2" (44.5 × 31.8 cm)
Credit
Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (by exchange), Agnes Gund, Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, and the Hudgins Family
Object number
6.2016
Department
Painting and Sculpture

Installation views

How we identified these works

In 2018–19, MoMA collaborated with Google Arts & Culture Lab on a project using machine learning to identify artworks in installation photos. That project has concluded, and works are now being identified by MoMA staff.

If you notice an error, please contact us at [email protected].

Licensing

If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit https://www.moma.org/research-and-learning/circulating-film.

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].

Feedback

This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].