William H. Johnson (1901-1970) was obtaining his arts education at the National Academy of Design in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. He lived and studied in New York City from 1918 to 1926. Like many African American artists of his generation, he traveled to and studied in Paris and other parts of France from 1926-1929, perhaps to gain more extensive training, perhaps to escape racism in the United States. Despite an art career that spanned almost five decades, outside of scholars of African American art, Johnson remains lesser known than his contemporaries Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden, and Lois Mailou Jones. These three artists are often associated with the Harlem Renaissance, while Johnson languishes on its periphery, his name rarely being associated with this unprecedented period in African American artistic and intellectual achievement.
Born in Florence, South Carolina in 1901 to poor parents, Johnson moved to New York City at seventeen years old. This relocation places him in New York City during the nascent years of the Renaissance, and seemingly positioned him to be a significant contributor to this period in black artistic achievement . While scholars continue to debate the exact dates when the Renaissance began and ended, many scholars concede that the end of the First World War in 1919 and the stock market crash of 1929 represent the most productive years for African American artistic achievement in New York City.
I like to mark the end of the Renaissance with the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) because it signals the end of African American literature that served to be palatable to white aesthetics and the beginning of the Richard Wright school of realism, naturalism, and social protest literature. However, even when extending the date of the Renaissance to 1937, Johnson continues to remain peripheral despite winning awards and being recognized by the Harmon Foundation: one of the primary benefactors of the Harlem Renaissance artists and writers.
Johnson worked in a variety of media: woodcuts, oil, water colors, pen and ink, and serigraphy. He often painted or printed on whatever materials were available such as burlap, plywood, and newspaper. A survey of Johnson’s oeuvre in the Luce Foundation Center at Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, DC provides some insight into the reasons for Johnson’s obscurity during the Renaissance.
Having been influenced by another African American landscape artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, whom Johnson met while living and studying in Paris, landscapes tended to dominate Johnson’s paintings early in his career. With European aesthetics prevalent in his arts education, and particularly in Paris where according to Susan Earle “a more naturalistic, conservative painting style” reigned, unlike Douglas, Bearden, and Jones, Johnson did not choose African Americans and Harlem as subjects for his works. The one notable exception is Johnson’s oil on canvas painting of his sixteen year old brother, Jim.
Johnson travelled to Scandinavia, Europe, and North Africa during the 1930s. Upon his return to the United States with his Danish wife in 1938, Johnson consciously choose not only African Americans as subjects but also he shifted his style to produce “work characterized by its stunning, eloquent, folk art simplicity,” according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Despite this shift placing him within the modernist tradition and primitivism style, Johnson was a relative late comer to the primitivism of which Douglas and Jones, in particular, had proven to be masters. Scholars like Gene Andrew Jarrett argue that the failure of artists and writers to toe the black aesthetic line during the Harlem Renaissance often places them outside the canonization of African American cultural production attributed to this period. Given that the Renaissance artists were wedded to W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of art as propaganda as well as Langston Hughes’ belief that Negro art ought not only be about Negro people but also should include the Negro working class in rural environments as subjects, it is no wonder that Johnson, like Tanner, has escaped canonization as a Harlem Renaissance artist.
Johnson’s works in the folk art and primitivism reign among the best produced by any American artist of the 20th century. Capturing rural landscapes and working- class African Americans picking cotton, performing forced labor on the chain gang, and contending with a broken down vehicle while joining the great migration north speak loudly to Johnson’s reverence for his own people in and about Florence, South Carolina as well as his virtuosity and vision. Much like how Jean Toomer and W.E.B. DuBois’s aesthetics changed upon visiting the rural south, Johnson’s reflections on his rural southern upbringing and his visits to his hometown in the 1930s are responsible for his shift in both subjects and style once he returns stateside in 1938.
It is Johnson’s works beginning in 1938 and spanning the entire decade of the 40s that embody the aesthetics that were prevalent during the earlier Renaissance. His works embody bolder primary colors, larger surfaces, and African American rural folk as well as historical figures like Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington. His painting “I Baptize Thee” (about 1940) depicts a baptism in a river or pond, a cultural practice and ritual endemic, but not exclusive, to rural southern black life. The patrons’ clothing is mostly painted in the signature blue that dominates Johnson’s works throughout the 1940s. Likewise “Chain Gang”(1939) and “The Breakdown (about 1940-41) challenge the viewer’s complicity with the quietness of Johnson’s composition despite the harsh Jim Crow south and lynchings that impinged on Black life in the south.
In “Chain Gang” the men’s black and white attires signify their status as forced laborers for the southern penal system. The two men on the left side of the painting appear like Siamese twins, their torsos merging reminding the viewer of the symbiosis of their relationship. Johnson’s depiction suggests that working together and being dependent on each other are essential to surviving mass incarceration, which was prevalent in the 1940s south and continues to be a harsh reality of black life throughout the U.S. today. Johnson’s signature blue appears on the tools that the men are dependent on for performing labor. A shade of blue is also used to represent the chains around each man’s ankles. The vivid landscape in the background as well as Johnson’s use of blue pigments minimize the harsh reality of these men’s condition. Melding folk art with expressionism renders Johnson’s “Chain Gang” palatable to white patrons yet representative of the harsh reality of black men’s lives. The strength in the men is depicted in Johnson’s portrayal of their large hands and feet. One man’s gaze toward the viewer speaks to the mask and detached stare that make these men capable of enduring incarceration and forced labor.
While many African Americans remained willingly or unwillingly in the South, thereby potentially subjecting themselves to white terrorism, approximately six million of them abandoned the rural south for the urban north. This massive movement of African Americans is known as the “Great Migration.” Johnson joins Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) in depicting African Americans abandoning the rural south for the urban north. Once again, bold colors minimize the complexity of this movement, particularly when the subject is departing via a car rather than a train. In Johnson’s painting entitled “The Breakdown, large, bare feet peeping from beneath the vehicle provide the sole indication that the woman who is near the fire presumably preparing a meal may not be traveling alone. The red sun, furniture, tire spokes, fire, and the ends of the fence remind the viewer of the prevalence of both the red clay (which Johnson does not portray) and blood, both symbolic of the harsh realities and violence that served as factors that pushed many African Americans out of the South. The hood ornament represented by a cross symbolizes the religiosity and faith that often provided solace for many African Americans from the denigrating realities of their lives. Johnson’s signature blue is almost violet, and it is represented on the vehicle rather than in the landscape or in the clothing of the subjects. To this extent, the blue-violet in this painting becomes symbolic of the transitory, commodifiable, and mass-produced nature of the blues music as it had become when Johnson completes this painting in 1940-41.
Despite having painted mostly landscapes early in his career, the bold colors and expressionism that came to define Johnson’s body of work are clearly evident in his 1920s landscape paintings like in “Harbor, Svolvaer, Lofoten.” Providing cultural space for a variety of subjects and styles among African American artists of the 1920s and 1930s would permit a broader appreciation for the diversity in Black art of this period, and ultimately would have to embrace Johnson as a Harlem Renaissance artist.
Johnson’s works are on permanent exhibit at the Luce Foundation Center for American Art at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, DC.