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 From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
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