One of the leading international modernists of the twentieth century and an important figure in the latter Harlem Renaissance era, William H. Johnson was born and raised in a poor African American community in Florence, South Carolina. He left for New York City in 1918 and studied at the National Academy of Design from 1922-1926 under Charles Hawthorne. Hawthorne was instrumental in helping the young artist travel to Paris in 1926 to advance his career. In France, Johnson met Danish textile artist Holcha Krake, whom he later married. The couple lived as expatriates in Europe until 1938, traveling widely before returning to New York to escape the growing danger of Nazi Germany. During this period, Johnson painted portraits, figure studies, landscapes, and still lifes influenced by the formal distortions, heightened color, and impasto brushwork of the post-impressionists.
Back in New York, Johnson was unable to support himself solely by his art and took a job teaching at the Harlem Community Art Center, where he also produced a significant amount of work. He increasingly turned his attention to portraying African American life in a dramatic, flattened style. For the first time in his career, he also began to paint works from memory, creating images of farming, family, and religious life in rural South Carolina. In the early 1940s, as Johnson accomplished his stated goal--"the painting of my own people"--he translated the intensity of his earlier, European-based expressionism into a primitive style that depicted vibrant characters and cultures of black urban and rural life, as well as religious and historical themes.
Johnson possessed a heroic, romantic personality and consciously styled himself as a modern painter throughout his artistic career, which ended after only two decades, following his institutionalization in 1947.
The Steven Harvey Southern Collection, San Francisco, California
Hicklin Galleries, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina, 2004
A Private Charitable Foundation, Fayetteville, North Carolina, 2005-2013
Hicklin Galleries, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina, 2013
Bennett, Blackman, and Harvey. The Steven Harvey Southern Collection. Charleston, S.C.: The Charleston Renaissance Gallery, 2005.