Johnson, William H.

Johnson, William H.

(1901–70) painter; born in Florence, S.C. After a childhood of poverty, he went to Harlem at age 17 and for five years studied painting at the National Academy of Design, then went to Europe where he lived mainly in Denmark and Norway, absorbing some European influences and gaining a reputation through exhibitions. He had married a Danish weaver and potter, Holche Krake, in 1930 and in 1938 he and his wife returned to New York where he began to produce perhaps his most important work. In 1943 he lost everything in a fire, then his wife died, and by 1947 he was placed in a mental institution. Virtually all of his surviving output—some 800 paintings and watercolors and 400 drawings and prints—was given to the National Museum of American Art in 1967, limiting its visibility. His work is, however, becoming recognized for its original fusion of such disparate strains as Van Gogh and African sculpture, Constructivism and African textiles, all united to convey a personal vision that is both modern and vernacular.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.