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William H. Johnson papers, 1922-1972, bulk 1926-1956

Biographical Note

William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) was born in Florence, South Carolina, in 1901. He moved to New York City in 1918, and from 1921 to 1926 he attended the National Academy of Design, studying with Charles Hawthorne, and attending Hawthorne's summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. As a student he won many awards for his paintings but failed to win a traveling scholarship to Europe. Hawthorne and others believed there may have been some prejudice in this decision and raised money for Johnson to study abroad. From 1926 to 1929 he lived in Paris and southern France. While in Paris he lived and worked in Whistler's old studio and met African American expatriate painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner. He lived briefly in Harlem, New York, in 1930 and exhibited in the Harmon Foundation's exhibition of work by African American artists in which he won the Gold Award for "Distinguished Achievement among Negroes".
In late 1930 Johnson moved to Kerteminde, Denmark, where he married textile artist Holcha Krake whom he had met in Paris. In 1933 they traveled to Germany, France, and Tunisia, which had a great impact on his work. From 1935 to 1938 they lived in various parts of Norway, and Johnson met artist Edvard Munch.
In 1938 Johnson and his wife moved back to New York City. The next year he briefly joined the WPA Federal Art Project as a painting teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center. Johnson had his first solo exhibition in New York at the Alma Reed Gallery in 1941. After Holcha Krake's death in 1944, Johnson began showing signs of mental illness. He lived briefly in Florence, South Carolina, and in 1946 returned to Denmark. He was hospitalized in Norway in 1947 and was then transferred to the Central Islip State Hospital in New York where he spent the next 23 years, until his death in 1970.
In 1956 the Harmon Foundation acquired over a thousand of Johnson's works that were still among his estate. The foundation ceased operations in 1967.