From the impressionism of Paris to the jazz ambiance of Harlem, William H. Johnson (1901-1970) found a singular style of painting that reflected his own African American roots and folk culture. Raised in rural South Carolina, Johnson crossed the world to pursue his art, traveling to New York, France, Africa, and Scandinavia, where he lived and worked for nearly a decade.
William H. Johnson: An American Modern is a selection of rarely seen paintings that highlight the pivotal stages of Johnson’s career as a modernist painter. Johnson explored aspects of African American culture and spirituality in his art, creating intentionally naïve images that are raw, vibrant and boldly colorful. His works brim with the vitality of life, displaying a strong sense of movement and character.
For Johnson, his art was personal and intimate, as he described to a Danish newspaper in 1932: “My aim is to express in a natural way what I feel, what is in me, both rhythmically and spiritually.” From his expressive European landscapes to his celebrations of African American life, Johnson proved himself a crucial member of the modern art movement in America.
William H. Johnson, Ring Around the Rosey, 1944 (detail). Oil on compressed cardboard.
William H. Johnson: An American Modern, an exhibition developed by Morgan State University and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Henry Luce Foundation and Morgan State University Foundation, Inc.
The Smithsonian Community Grant program, funded by MetLife Foundation, is a proud sponsor of these public programs.