Henry Johnson was an African American expressionist painter. He was born on March 18, 1901 in Florence, South Carolina to mother Alice Smoot
Johnson (known as “Mom Alice” or “Aunt Alice”) and father Henry Johnson. William H. Johnson was the oldest of five
children: Lacy, Lucy, James, and Lillian.
Johnson spent his childhood helping out his family, finding a joy for
painting, and attending rural grade schools in Florence.
At age 17 Johnson moved to New York
where he worked as a cook, hotel porter, and stevedore. In September 1921 he enrolled at the School of
the National Academy of Design (NAD).
Between 1923 and 1926 during the academic year he studied with Charles
W. Hawthorne at the NAD and during the summers at The Cape Cod School of Art in
In 1926 Johnson moved to Paris, France to study art. He worked as a custodian to earn extra money. Over the next few years he traveled and held
exhibits in France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. In 1930 Johnson married Danish textile artist
Holcha Krake. Johnson and his wife lived
and worked in countries throughout Europe and in 1932, the couple arrived in
Tunisia where Johnson hoped to connect to his African heritage. After a three-month stay they returned to
Denmark via France. During the next
couple of years the Johnsons visited Norway and Sweden where they continued to
exhibit their art.
After sensing danger from the approaching war in Europe, in 1938 the Johnsons
arrived in New York. William H. Johnson
taught painting for a short period of time at the Harlem Community Art Center. The Metropolitan Museum of Art included his
work of black soldiers in its 1942 exhibit Artists
for Victory. In 1943 Johnson’s wife
Holcha was diagnosed with breast cancer and died the following year. From 1944 to 1946 Johnson worked as laborer
in the Navy Yards in New York. He went
to Denmark in 1946 with all of his and Holcha’s possessions and for a few
months he stayed with the Krake family.
After the police picked him up for vagrancy and he was diagnosed with
syphilis-induced paresis he was sent back to New York and was admitted to
Central Islip State Hospital in 1947 where he spent the rest of the life.
New York lawyer Sol Romaner became Johnson’s guardian in 1948. Romaner arranged for Johnson’s works to be
taken from storage and in 1955, Johnson’s artwork was transferred to the Harmon
Foundation which in turn donated Johnson’s works to relatives, friends, museums,
and foundations. Johnson’s paintings are
in the collections of numerous museums, including the National Museum of
American Art, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. William H. Johnson died on April 13, 1970 of
J. Powell, Homecoming: The Art and Life
of William H. Johnson (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution; New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.,
1991); Steve Turner and Victoria Dailey, William
H. Johnson: Truth Be Told (Los Angeles, California: Seven Arts Publishing,
1998); William H. Johnson, Adelyn Dohme Breeskin, National Collection of Fine
Arts, William H. Johnson, 1901-1970 (Washington
D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971).
University of Washington, Seattle